Key West streets turned to roaring rivers and Tampa was blasted by high winds and heavy rains as Elsa, weakening slightly but still a powerful storm, rolled up Florida’s west coast Wednesday.
Elsa, downgraded from hurricane to tropical storm status, will move almost parallel to the west coast of Florida before making landfall along the north Florida Gulf Coast by late this morning or afternoon, the National Weather Service said. The storm, centered about 115 miles northwest of Tampa and driving sustained winds of 65 mph, was headed north at about 14 mph.
A tropical storm warning was in place for more than 13 million people.
“We ask that you please take it seriously,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said. “This is not a time to joyride because we do have hazardous conditions out there.”
Much of Central Florida is under a tornado watch as rain bands and severe thunderstorms associated with Elsa move across the state. A few tornadoes remain possible across west-central to north Florida into this afternoon.
AccuWeather projected Elsa would make landfall north of Tampa, near Horseshoe Beach, Florida, shortly before 10 a.m. Wednesday.
There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries in the Tampa Bay area, which is highly vulnerable to storm surge. The most powerful winds were forecast to remain just offshore from the beach towns west of St. Petersburg.
Officials at Tampa International Airport suspended operations late Tuesday, saying plans called for resuming operations at 10 a.m. Wednesday “after assessing the airport property for storm damage.” About 200 flights were canceled. Operations actually resumed at 8:30 a.m., after authorities evaluated the airfield and airport facilities for storm damage from Elsa, which brought gusts of up to 41 miles per hour overnight.
“The Airport did not sustain any damage from the storm,” airport officials said in a statement. “TPA’s roadways are clear, and the garages and rental car center are open.”
The storm complicated the search for potential survivors and victims in the collapse of a Miami-area condominium on June 24. Despite that challenge, crews continued the search in the rubble of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, on the state’s southeast coast. The death toll from that tragedy stood at 36 early Wednesday.
The storm should move across the southeastern and mid-Atlantic U.S. through Thursday, said Jack Beven, a senior hurricane specialist at NOAA’s National Hurricane. Center in Miami.
A hurricane warning remained in effect for a sliver of Florida’s west coast from Chassahowitzka to the Steinhatchee River.
“Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” Beven said.
In Georgia, a tropical storm warning was posted along the portion of the coast of Brunswick, with the National Hurricane Center saying tropical storm conditions with sustained winds of up to 50 mph are expected in parts of southeast Georgia.
“Right now, we’re basically looking at a cloudy, rainy and windy day,” Glynn County Emergency Management Agency Director Alec Eaton told the Brunswick News on Tuesday. “I feel confident we can sit down and let it pass over us without any major impacts. Hopefully.”
A tropical storm watch was in effect as far north as Duck, North Carolina, to Chincoteague, Virginia, and for the Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort.
Elsa became the first hurricane of the season last week, blasting through the Caribbean and leaving three people dead. It calmed somewhat to a tropical storm but regained hurricane status Tuesday for a few hours before returning to a tropical storm.
“Whether Elsa hits as a low-end Category 1 hurricane or as a strong tropical storm, there may be little difference with impacts,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Jake Sojda said.
Spaghetti models: Track Elsa here
Contributing: Diane Pantaleo and Cheryl McCloud, USA TODAY Network; The Associated Press