ST. PETERSBURG — After eight months of a pandemic and on the heels of a bruising election, Tampa Bay found itself Wednesday on the receiving end of Tropical Storm Eta’s blows. Briefly a hurricane, Eta battered the coast with heavy rains and wind gusts.
By evening, the Tampa Bay area — positioned to receive some of the storm’s strongest winds — waited to see what damage the next few hours would bring. In this final stretch of a record-breaking hurricane season, a long night lay ahead.
Tropical Storm Eta first crashed into Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane on Nov. 3, killing at least 60 people in Central America and likely many more. A weakened Eta careened around the Gulf of Mexico, then made a dramatic turn so that Tampa Bay residents woke Wednesday to see the Nature Coast in its crosshairs. By midmorning, Eta had briefly grown into a Category 1 hurricane. Alerts lit up Florida phones: STORM SURGE WARNING. Then came states of emergency, tornado warnings, power outages and dark skies over the bay.
For Lauren Hartmann, on the hunt for water and breakfast foods at a St. Petersburg Publix, the possibility of a last-minute hurricane striking her vulnerable hometown seemed like just “another blow in 2020.”
After a day of slanting rain, with the storm only 50 miles offshore, Pinellas County officials said Wednesday evening that the time to prepare had passed. They urged residents to shelter in place overnight as the storm, and the hour of high tide, approached.
THE RAMP UP
As people woke Wednesday to the news of Eta’s curving path, waves splashed the St. Petersburg Pier and sent yogis running. Local counties halted buses, the cross-bay ferry stopped service and Pinellas-Pasco courts announced they would close Thursday — even for Zoom hearings.
Schools released students ahead of the storm’s impact, and Tampa International Airport suspended afternoon operations. Attractions like ZooTampa at Lowry Park shuttered. When winds hit 50 mph, the Sunshine Skyway bridge turned away drivers. Many local businesses locked up early. At Tropicana Field, drive-thru COVID-19 nose swabs were put on hold.
Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded a State of Emergency declaration to include 13 counties, including all of Tampa Bay. Local counties declared their own states of emergency, some opening storm shelters for the most vulnerable.
By 11:30 a.m., the then-hurricane was thrashing boats in Venice, shredding mobile home roofs south of the Skyway and clouding St. Petersburg skies.
Morning dry air knocked down some of Eta’s power, bringing it back into tropical storm territory as of 1 p.m.. Storm surge was a danger, along with stiff winds. Forecasters urged caution, warning of downed branches, busted-out pool screens, flooded roads and trash cans gone flying.
“This is a hunker down situation,” ABC Action News chief meteorologist Denis Phillips wrote on Facebook. “Liken this to the winds of our afternoon storms, except ones that will last for 12 hours.”
WHAT ETA WROUGHT
Mid-afternoon, choppy waves sloshed against the seawall on Pass-A-Grille Way in St. Pete Beach. Surfer Emily Ashe, 22, in a wetsuit, fought to catch a ride.
“Just too messy to surf,” she said, braids dripping in the deluge. “But I love to chase the waves.”
As the storm’s outer bands crept closer, the National Weather Service reported strong bursts of wind. At Demens Landing in St. Petersburg, a gust of 55 mph was recorded at 12:30 p.m. The University of Tampa saw a similar gust.
Waves lashed the balustrade along Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. Mayor Jane Castor said the city had not seen any damage as of early evening. In eastern Hillsborough County, Eta teased residents by periodically dousing the region in rains before seemingly disappearing into the gulf. The storm wasn’t enough to cause alarm to residents living in the Alafia River basin, even as officials estimated that the notoriously flood-prone river would rise to 13 feet by Friday morning.
Gulfport’s casino looked out onto shin-deep water. Dead palm fronds fell onto St. Petersburg streets. Shore Acres streets flooded, per usual.
By 4 p.m., the storm had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph and rolled northward at 12 mph. The National Weather Service in Ruskin said Eta was expected to weaken before making landfall near Crystal River about 4 a.m. Thursday, then rapidly lose strength as it crosses the state.
As the storm meandered in the gulf earlier this week, gauge data showed that, for the most part, Tampa Bay’s major rivers had some room before reaching flood stage. With rainfall projected at 2 to 4 inches of rain, with 6 inches possible, that remained a threat.
At the flood-prone Anclote River Park, just over the Pasco-Pinellas county line, rainwater had already begun to saturate the ground Wednesday afternoon. An egret walked through ponds that had formed in the grass.
TAMPA BAY REACTS
At a St. Petersburg Winn-Dixie, employees drilled aluminum storm shutters over windows. Inside, and at other grocery stores, the air was decidedly calm, even as long lines spilled into grocery aisles. The storm-tested Floridian spirit — the “let’s get this over with” attitude — seemed to prevail.
Dan Smith already had his hurricane kit prepared when he came to shop at a Target on Dr. M.L.K. Jr. St. N. He’d learned that lesson during Irma. The 44-year-old came for his usual, twice-a-month trip.
“We’ve been through worse,” he said.
For Target shopper Michael Sharp, 18, and his girlfriend, Ashley Crookshanks, 17, the storm got them out of school early.
“We needed to go shopping anyways,” he said. They planned to spend the rest of the day indoors, playing board games — likely Monopoly.
At the Tarpon Springs sponge docks, rain pounded on restaurants and shops, open to the few people braving the worsening weather.
A couple of sandbags sat by the door to Nina’s Gift Shop on Athens Street, where owner Kleopatra Georgiou, 74, sells sponges, shea butters and handmade soaps. A 40-year resident, she was mostly unfazed: “Every year we have something,” she said.
Plus, her late husband, Terry, was keeping an eye on her. She pointed to a picture on the wall above the cash register that shows him in 1993, tanned and surrounded by sponges.
Down the street, Anastasios “Taso” Karistinos peered through the rain from his traditional Greek-style sponge boat. He planned to busy himself aboard with TV and books, keeping an eye on his lines in case the water rose.
Called the “Anastasi” — “resurrection” in Greek — the fiberglass-frame boat was crafted by a master builder. Karistinos didn’t want to let it out of his sight.
“This is my investment,” he said, “and source of my living.”
In St. Petersburg, Dwight Snow picked up project supplies at ACE Hardware, snagging some paste in case he needed to seal his doors against water. The 64-year-old lives in Shore Acres.
“We get water coming up through the storm drains on a full moon, you know, just regular high tide,” he said.
Home Depot’s table saws buzzed steadily, filling the store on 22nd Avenue N with the scent of fresh-cut plywood. At Aldi on U.S. 19, shoppers leaned patiently over carts packed with canned goods and pantry staples.
Nancy Hanley wasn’t stressed, but did want to grab another case of spring water for her and her husband. With Walmart sold out, she found a sign at Aldi limiting purchases to two cases per shopper. She shrugged.
“I only need one, anyway,” she said.
The strongest tropical-storm-force winds and rain were expected overnight and early Thursday. Locals should look out for power outages, street flooding and widespread, small-scale damage such as downed trees.
Times staff writers Natalie Weber, Sara DiNatale, Kathryn Varn, Anastasia Dawson, Jack Evans, Christopher Spata, Zachary T. Sampson, Caitlin Johnston, Josh Fiallo and Scott Keeler contributed to this report.
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