Tropical Storm Eta steadily rolled toward Tampa Bay on Wednesday, pelting the region with blankets of rain and gusty winds into the night.
The hurricane watch that was in place for more than 100 miles of the Gulf Coast, from Anna Maria Island in the south to Yankeetown in the north, was discontinued, the National Weather Service reported. Tampa Bay remained in the line of fire and meteorologists warned the region could be buffeted by high winds and heavy rain into early Thursday morning.
As of 1 a.m. Thursday, the storm was 105 miles northwest of Tampa, reaching sustained 60 mph winds and moving north at 10 mph, the Weather Service said. In St. Petersburg, winds had gusted above 50 mph Wednesday night. Parts of Pinellas and Manatee counties had already been deluged by up to 7 inches of rain, according to Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure. Areas closer to the coast were seeing the most severe weather, he said.
About 36,000 Duke Energy customers in Pinellas and Pasco counties were without power shortly before midnight, according to the company’s website. The Tampa Electric Co. website reported dozens of outages spread across Hillsborough County then, with nearly 6,300 customers affected.
Eta led the Florida Highway Patrol to close part of the Courtney Campbell Causeway by about 10:45 p.m., according to the agency’s website. Forecasters expected up to five feet of storm surge in some places.
The storm was expected to move north-northeast Wednesday evening and through the night, skirting the Gulf Coast, Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Diane Kacmarik reported Wednesday afternoon. Forecasters believed it could make landfall late at night, or it could remain just offshore.
“It will be close through this evening and into the overnight,” Kacmarik said.
Eta spent much of Wednesday morning as a hurricane, as Floridians woke to gathering clouds and school closures. Courts and governmental agencies planned to shutter Thursday, and Tampa International Airport announced it would suspend operations at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Sustained winds of 75 mph were recorded by Hurricane Hunter aircraft and radar, according to the National Hurricane Center’s 10 a.m. update, making the storm a Category 1 hurricane. Just before 1 p.m., though, the hurricane center reported the system had weakened and was once again a tropical storm.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced early Wednesday afternoon that he’d expanded a State of Emergency declaration to include 13 counties along or near Florida’s west coast, including all of Tampa Bay. Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties had already declared their own states of emergency, and Hernando County announced its own minutes after the governor’s order.
Several tornado warnings issued in both Pinellas and Hillsborough punctuated the afternoon, covering parts of south Tampa, the Howard Frankland Bridge and Gandy Bridge, much of south Pinellas County and portions of south Hillsborough County. All eventually expired.
The National Weather Service also issued a special marine warning for the north Pinellas coast, warning of high winds and the possibility of a waterspout.
Dry air had weakened Eta by the late morning, said Jeff Masters, a former Hurricane Hunter and meteorologist who writes for Yale Climate Connections. He expected the storm to continue weakening as it moved north.
Just before 9 a.m., school districts in Pinellas and Pasco counties had announced that all schools would be releasing students early on Wednesday and would be closed Thursday due to dangerous weather.
In Pinellas, high school students were released at 10 a.m , elementary school students at 11 a.m. and middle school students at noon. Extracurricular events and activities for Wednesday and Thursday, and meal distribution Thursday, were all canceled.
“Our transportation department will monitor weather and wind speeds to ensure safe bus operations,” the school district announced.
In Pasco, high school students were released at 11 a.m., middle school students at noon and elementary school students at 1 p.m. All staff were to be released by 2 p.m. and all after-school events and activities were canceled, according to a statement from the district. All schools and district offices were to be closed on Thursday, along with the district’s PLACE and STAR Academy programs.
Public schools in Hillsborough were off for Veterans Day. The district announced schools would be closed Thursday and Friday, in part so they could be used as hurricane shelters if needed. School districts in Hernando and Citrus counties announced they too would close school sites and cancel events on Wednesday and Thursday. The Citrus County School District said students would still attend Thursday classes remotely.
The Hillsborough County Emergency Operations Center opened five shelters at 1 p.m. for people who depend on electricity for home medical needs or who live in homes and manufactured housing susceptible to wind damage.
“Wherever possible, residents should consider other alternatives to a public shelter, such as staying with friends, family, or in a hotel,” the Emergency Operations Center said.
High winds on Wednesday closed the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit suspended all bus routes, the TECO Line Streetcar and HART SMART AV service starting at noon. ZooTampa announced it would close through Thursday. And local businesses and restaurants announced their own closures.
Pinellas closed its drive-through COVID-19 testing site at Tropicana Field for Wednesday.
Governmental agencies along the coast announced other closures. A spokesman for the Sixth Judicial Circuit said courts in Pinellas and Pasco would be closed Thursday, and hearings planned for teleconference or Zoom would be canceled, though some court events, including juvenile detention and shelter hearings, would take place at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Clearwater and New Port Richey.
The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office also planned to close Thursday. It intends to reconvene Friday morning to canvass overseas ballots and certify general election results.
The City of Largo closed many of its facilities, including its city hall and public library, at noon Wednesday and planned to keep them closed through Friday morning. It also suspended solid waste collection for Thursday.
North of Tampa Bay in Cedar Key — the small island community flooded by about a 9-foot surge when Category 1 Hurricane Hermine struck in 2016 — public works staffers came in on the Veterans Day holiday to prepare for the storm, said Vice Mayor Sue Colson.
“We’re not going to get caught with our guard down,” she said.
As the storm had meandered in the gulf earlier this week, its course still uncertain, gauge data showed the Tampa Bay area’s major rivers for the most part had at least some room before reaching flood stage.
“There’s storage in rivers and streams and lakes in general, but it’s just a matter of how much rain we see,” said Granville Kinsman, who leads the hydrologic data section at the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
More than four inches in just a day held the potential to change that, he said.
Eta (pronounced AY-tuh) had strengthened Tuesday night, picking up speed and curving somewhat northeast. It previously struck Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane and killed at least 60 people in Central America before moving into the Gulf of Mexico. Rain started drifting into the Tampa Bay area Wednesday morning.
The system is expected to eventually cut over land and back into the Atlantic. For Tampa Bay, the worst should pass overnight.
“By Thursday afternoon, Eta will be moving away from us,” said Juli Marquez, a meteorologist for Spectrum Bay News 9.
Times staff writers Malena Carollo, Allison Ross, Dan Sullivan, Kathryn Varn, Romy Ellenbogen, Caitlin Johnston and Claire McNeill contributed to this report. This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.
• • •
2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC's tips for this pandemic-hurricane season
PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter