The first Atlantic hurricane of the season has formed with Tampa Bay squarely in its path.
Hurricane Elsa reached hurricane strength Friday morning and hours later shifted slightly east. The Florida peninsula remains in the cone of uncertainty, with Elsa’s arrival to Tampa Bay set for midday on Tuesday.
Maximum sustained winds increased to nearly 75 mph by 8 a.m. Friday, making Elsa a Category 1 hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm had strengthened by the afternoon, with sustained winds of 85 mph. Governmental meteorologists expect the storm to weaken over Cuba and Hispaniola. It will likely be a tropical storm by the time it reaches Tampa Bay.
The hurricane center’s 8 p.m. update showed Elsa shifting slightly west, which means the storm may just skirt by South Florida’s coastal areas if it continues on this trajectory.
It’s still too early to say what shape the storm will be in after it passes over Hispaniola and Cuba this weekend and what parts of Florida — if any — will be at risk, the hurricane center said.
“There is still an amount of uncertainty,” said Spectrum Bay News 9 Meteorologist Nick Merianos. “Really, over the next 24 to 36 hours we’ll see more how this interacts with land over the Caribbean and we see a northern turn that has implications on the track of this.”
Merianos said Tampa Bay residents should begin taking precautions now.
The biggest threat to Tampa Bay will be storm surge, according to Dustin Norman of the National Weather Service’s Ruskin office.
During Tropical Storm Eta last November, parts of Pinellas and Pasco counties saw significant flooding before the storm made landfall in Cedar Key. When Tampa Bay residents went to sleep on Nov. 10, they thought the tropical system would miss the region. But the next morning, the storm had shifted east and was a Category 1 hurricane less than 100 miles off St. Petersburg Beach.
Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies deployed high-water vehicles to rescue 33 people after Eta. Flooding inundated areas around South Tampa and Tampa General Hospital. Bayshore Boulevard and the Tampa Riverwalk were both completely underwater.
“Tampa Bay is one of the more susceptible regions, if not the most susceptible region to storm surge in the United States as far as population in a flood zone goes,” Norman said. “The region’s biggest concern is storm surge, especially for Pinellas County where there’s only a small portion that’s not in a surge zone.”
Norman said residents should have a hurricane plan in place by Monday night — the earliest Tampa Bay could begin experiencing tropical storm conditions from Elsa.
“You don’t want to wait for the tropical storm conditions to be on top of you while you’re attempting to prepare because then it’s too late,” he said.
Both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have not activated their emergency management centers yet but said Thursday they were closely monitoring the storm’s movement. Hillsborough County spokesman Chris Pratt said any announcement about activation, evacuations or sandbags will come over the weekend if the storm continues on its current path. Hernando and Pasco counties opened self-serve sandbag sites through the weekend.
By a number of measures, Elsa arrived earlier than usual. Elsa is the fifth named storm so far this year and the earliest on record for the Atlantic, according to Colorado State University. That record was previously July 6, when Eduardo became the fifth named storm of the 2020 hurricane season.
The storm also formed over a month ahead of the average date for the first hurricane: Aug. 14.
Elsa is also moving much faster than average, according to Merianos. The hurricane center’s 5 p.m. update said Elsa was traveling northwest at 30 mph, prompting the governments of Cuba and Jamaica to issue a hurricane warning. At that time, hurricane-force winds extended 25 miles from its center while tropical-storm-level winds extended 140 miles.
With tropical storm conditions not expected for the Fourth of July, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Friday that Boom by the Bay is still a go for Sunday night. She said NOAA forecasters had assured her that Sunday’s weather “is going to be perfect.”
If they’re wrong, Castor quipped, they’ll be tossed off the famed Gasparilla boat. Meanwhile, a firework show at the St. Petersburg Pier is expected to continue as planned as well, according to St. Petersburg spokesman Benjamin Kirby.
“Mayor Kriseman is keeping a close eye on Hurricane Elsa, and will continue to monitor it closely through the weekend,” he said in an email. “We do not anticipate it having an impact on 4th of July events, but will be prepared for any scenario.”
Clearwater’s fireworks display on Saturday and Sunday had not been canceled as of Friday.
Norman said that Tampa Bay will have a 40 percent chance of rain Sunday but that will be concentrated in the morning, making for clear skies in time for evening fireworks.
Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.
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