Tropical Storm Andrea, the first named storm of this year's Atlantic hurricane season, formed in the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday afternoon and was expected to bring torrential rains, flooding and possible tornadoes to the Tampa Bay area today.
As of 11 p.m. Wednesday, Andrea was centered about 270 miles southwest of Tampa, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph with tropical storm force winds extending mostly south and southeast of the center for about 140 miles as it headed north at about 6 mph.
Andrea was expected to pick up speed today and move through northeast Florida by the evening, potentially making it less destructive than last year's Tropical Storm Debby, which lingered in the Gulf of Mexico for several days.
Despite its speed, though, the storm still poses a significant risk of tornadoes and flooding, said National Weather Service meteorologist Andrew McKaughan.
"We're still going to have heavy rainfall totals in the next 24 to 36 hours," McKaughan said. "The tornado threat will be similar to what we saw with Debby. We had a number of tornadoes from Debby."
Debby caused about a half-dozen tornadoes, including one that damaged businesses and homes in Pass-a-Grille. The storm left 15,000 people in Tampa Bay without power, some for days. It also prompted the evacuation of thousands of homes, contributed to four local deaths and closed the Sunshine Skyway bridge for three days, the longest stretch in its history.
McKaughan advised people to be aware of weather conditions this morning, especially in areas near the coast, which will be most vulnerable to tornadoes.
The National Weather Service issued a tropical storm warning Wednesday from Boca Grande in southwest Florida to the Ochlockonee River in the Panhandle. A flood watch was also issued through tonight for the bay area including Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Storm surge along the coast could be between 2 to 4 feet, forecasters said. The weather service warned that "residents living in flood prone areas should take action to protect property."
Hillsborough and Pinellas will remain in a coastal flood advisory until 8 p.m. Friday, according to the weather service. High tides may run 1 to 3 feet higher in the next couple days, forecasters said, and there is also a chance for dangerous rip currents and high surf.
Several municipalities in the bay area were offering sandbags to help residents prepare.
Clearwater city officials warned beachgoers to be cautious in the next few days due to the possibility that the storm could produce dangerous rip currents and coastal flooding. Some were concerned about the number of young people flocking to the beaches because Wednesday was the last day of school for Pinellas County students.
"Any time we have high winds, we will have higher surf and that will bring up concerns on rip currents and beach erosions," Patrick Brafford, Clearwater's water safety supervisor, said in a news release. "People need to heed these warnings."
City lifeguards will use a flag system to notify swimmers about beach conditions. A raised yellow flag means swimmers should be cautious entering the water. A red flag means the conditions present a high hazard.
Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Twitter: @zacksampson.