Tropical Storm Elsa made its way through Georgia on Wednesday evening into early Thursday, injuring at least 10 people and giving the state its first real taste of a hurricane season NOAA predicted would be above-average in part due to climate change.
Heavy rain, flooding, gusty winds and isolated tornadoes were all seen throughout the state, despite the tropical storm weakening after making landfall on Florida’s north Gulf Coast late Wednesday morning, killing at least one person in Jacksonville when a tree fell and struck two cars.
While Georgia mostly avoided severe storm surge and dangerous winds, Elsa still served as a stark reminder of the way climate change will continue to intensify tropical storms, hurricanes and other weather systems in the years to come.
Elsa’s path through Georgia
According to the National Hurricane Center, Elsa’s center was just outside Valdosta in southern Georgia at around 5 p.m. Wednesday, still packing 45 mph winds and heavy rains as the tropical storm began its path up the state.
Shortly before 6 p.m., a tornado warning was issued in Camden County when a tornado touched down in the St. Mary’s area, hitting a RV park at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. Scott Bassett, base spokesman, told the Associated Press that at least 10 people were injured but the extent of the injuries was not immediately clear. He said some buildings appeared to be damaged as well.
Glynn County officials released an update just before 8 p.m. saying the storm had slowed over the county, bringing downed trees, power lines and flooding to many of Brunswick’s streets. A WeatherFlow station on Jekyll Island outside of Brunswick reported wind gusts up to 58 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
According to the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, 3 to 6 inches of rain had fallen along I-95 in southeast Georgia by 8 p.m. Flash flood warnings were issued for northeastern Camden and southeastern Glynn counties, and minimal power outages, just over 4,000, were reported throughout southeast Georgia shortly after 8 p.m.
Glynn County saw several cancellations and closures on Wednesday ahead of the storm, including all public school summer programs and public pools. No bridge closures were made in the county as Elsa rolled through, but demolition of the wrecked Golden Ray off St. Simons Island was temporarily halted. Many businesses in Chatham County also closed Wednesday afternoon in anticipation, and Chatham County and the City of Savannah both closed nonessential services.
Elsa’s heaviest bands of rain started moving up the coast to Savannah by 9 p.m. as the storm’s center continued moving through the middle of the state. A flood advisory was issued for Bryan, Chatham and Effingham counties just before 9:30 p.m. after 1 to 2 inches of rain had fallen, according to the National Weather Service in Charleston.
Just before 10:30 p.m., Savannah started seeing extreme rain at a rate of 3-5 inches per hour. City officials had to shut down Abercorn at 61st Street due to a car getting stuck in flooded waters, and in Effingham County, dozens of homes were damaged and multiple trees were reported as downed.
Extreme rain was also seen on Sapelo Island in McIntosh County, where 1.5 inches of rain was measured within just 15 minutes, and on Tybee Island, where some parking lots were completely flooded. Tybee Island also saw wind gusts up to 75 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
Elsa started to move into South Carolina’s lowcountry at around 11 p.m., according to the National Hurricane Center, leading tropical storm warnings to be lifted south of the Altamaha Sound. At 11:30 p.m., over 12,500 power outages were reported in Effingham and Chatham counties, as tornado warnings were issued near Hilton Head Island.
Overnight, Elsa made its way out of the state as it started moving through the Carolinas, but Chatham County and surrounding areas remained under a tropical storm warning and tornado watch until early this morning. Just before 9 a.m., over 7,000 power outages remained in Effingham and Chatham counties.
As of early this morning, more than 5 inches of rain had fallen at Sapelo Island, according to meteorological monitoring on the island. At Fort Pulaski, over 4 inches of rain had been recorded, and some areas of Chatham County saw up to 8 inches. The National Hurricane Center initially predicted that the state would see 3 to 5 inches, with isolated amounts of up to 8 inches.
Today, Elsa is anticipated to barrel through the North Carolina with heavy wind and rain, maintaining tropical strength as it moves into the mid-Atlantic before heading back to open water early Friday.
Climate change connections
In May, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center predicted an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season for 2021, citing above average ocean temperatures as a result of climate change as contributing to the storm activity.
Elsa was the first hurricane of the Atlantic season and is the earliest fifth-named storm on record. Elsa also broke the record as the fastest-moving hurricane, clocking in at 31 mph early Saturday, Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, told the Associated Press.
Clark Alexander, director of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, told The Current that while there isn’t yet a solidified scientific consensus on whether climate change is making hurricanes more frequent, it is making them heavier in rainfall and more intense – a storm that may have normally been a category one may be elevated to a category two due to waters being warmer.
“All the effects of climate change really deal with warming water,” Alexander said. “Climate change is warming temperatures, which is warming waters. Warmer waters provide more moisture to storms so you get more rainfall, and it also provides more energy to storms.”
A study published in the journal Nature in 2020 found that as oceans continue to warm, the intense impacts of hurricanes will be felt further inland than they did in the past. Just like increased rainfall and intensified impacts, that’s because of increased moisture as a result of warming waters.
These intensified hurricanes could have several implications, including on one of Georgia’s top industries — agriculture.
“Hurricanes are coming in slower, and they’re coming in wetter, so there’s more likely to be flooding and strong winds,” Pam Knox, a public service associate and agricultural climatologist with UGA Cooperative Extension, told The Current. “Both of those can cause a lot of damage to agriculture, especially since a lot of the peak of the hurricane season comes at a time when farmers are doing a lot of harvesting. They can lose their harvests in a day if the storm comes in at the wrong time.”
Climate change and the subsequent warming of ocean waters are due to greenhouse gas emissions. According to the EPA, fossil fuel combustion accounts for 74% of total emissions. A 2019 analysis from the Climate Accountability Institute found that 20 fossil fuel companies are responsible for over one third of all modern emissions.
Elsa’s impacts before U.S landfall
Elsa killed at least three people as it sped through the Caribbean over the weekend, according to reporting by the Associated Press. Two people were killed by collapsing walls in the Dominican Republic on Saturday, and one person was killed in St. Lucia, where agricultural damage was estimated at $12.5 million.
On Sunday, Elsa passed north of Jamaica bringing severe flash flooding and road damage. On Monday afternoon, the storm landed in central Cuba with 50 mph winds and eight inches of rain, but the country was mostly spared from severe impacts.
The storm neared Florida on Tuesday, teetering between a category 1 hurricane and a tropical storm before making landfall in Taylor County on Florida’s north Gulf Coast Wednesday morning as a tropical storm, bringing torrential rain, gusty winds and isolated tornadoes. The storm disrupted search and rescue efforts at the collapsed Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Florida.
The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.