Port-au-Prince (AFP) -
Elsa was downgraded to a tropical storm on Saturday afternoon as it churned off southern Haiti, battering the area with hurricane conditions.
The weather system -- the Atlantic's first hurricane of the season on Friday, when it was a Category 1 storm -- brought maximum sustained winds of 70 miles (110 kilometers) per hour and was moving northwest at 28 miles per hour, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
'There are fairly intense gusts of wind and light rain, but so far we have not recorded any damage,' said Jerry Chandler, director of the Haitian civil protection agency.
A hurricane warning was in effect for southern Haiti from Port-au-Prince to the southern border with the Dominican Republic, the NHC said, with dangerous winds and storm surge of 2 to 4 feet (60 to 120 centimeters).
Elsa was expected to pass over the southwestern tip of Haiti in the evening, and gradually weaken on Sunday and Monday as it continues on a path toward Jamaica, Cuba and the US state of Florida.
'Hurricane conditions are still possible in the hurricane warning area in Haiti for a few more hours. Hurricane conditions are possible in eastern Cuba on Sunday,' the NHC said in its 5 pm (2100 GMT) update.
'Across portions of southern Hispaniola and Jamaica, rainfall of 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches is expected today into Sunday. This rain may lead to scattered flash flooding and mudslides, some of which may be significant in nature,' forecasters said.
In Haiti, authorities raised the alert level to the maximum red on Saturday morning, warning the entire country to remain vigilant.
Officials in the impoverished country have voiced fears that they lack emergency supplies such as food and water.
The government recently had to use a good part of its emergency resources in another crisis: the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes in Port-au-Prince because of raging gang violence.
Many of these people are staying in gyms, schools or other public buildings, and some supplies originally earmarked for hurricane season have been used to support them, Chandler said.
- Heavily armed gangs -
Authorities want to ship emergency supplies to the southern coast, but heavily armed gangs control part of the only road leading from the capital to the south and are allowing nothing through.
To reach these threatened areas, Chandler said, 'we have to go through red zones,' referring to gang-held territory.
In 2016, Category 4 Hurricane Matthew killed more than 500 people in southern Haiti and caused nearly $2 billion in damage.
Parts of the Florida Keys were placed under a tropical storm watch on Saturday evening, with forecasters warning of rainfall, storm surges and strong winds from Elsa affecting the Keys and the Florida peninsula early next week.
Hurricane-related weather would be bad news for the Florida town of Surfside, near Miami, where rescuers are trying to dig out a collapsed condo building in search of survivors and bodies.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told reporters Saturday that the part of the condo building still standing could be demolished before Elsa's arrival, to protect the safety of the hundreds of search and rescue workers at the site.
The work could be completed within 36 hours, entailing 'minimal work stoppage from the search and rescue teams,' he said.
Meanwhile, the state expects to have 2.6 million drivers on the roads during the July 4 holiday weekend, according to South Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper, citing the AAA auto club.
'It isn't unreasonable for South Floridians to be ready for the potential of a Category 1 hurricane knocking on our door early next week,' said Robert Garcia, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center, according to the paper.
'It is something that can't be ruled out, and folks should be aware that's something we may have to prepare for here during the holiday weekend.'