While Florida remains in the path of the stubborn but uncertain Tropical Storm Elsa, which briefly gained hurricane strength, Tampa Bay residents spent Saturday focused on their real priority:
Getting ready to celebrate the Fourth of July.
“We’ll worry about the storm after we have our fun,” said 43-year-old Esmeralda Lopez as she shopped in West Tampa.
At the Pinellas Park Target on U.S. 19 N, there was a run on sliders, chicken breasts, paper plates and White Claw alcoholic beverages — but not batteries. The parking lot wasn’t full and customers left with just a few bags and some beer.
Ashley Naal, 38, was preparing for a family trip to Washington D.C. for the holiday. They bought some water, just in case.
“My husband is worried about it,” she said of the impending storm. “I’m not.”
That is the question vexing all of Tampa Bay and Florida: How big a deal is Elsa and when will we know?
That should be Monday, when meteorologists will have a firmer grasp of Elsa’s future path and intensity as it emerges from Cuba and enters the Gulf of Mexico.
It was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm on Saturday morning and passed over Haiti with maximum sustained winds of up to 70 mph, just shy of the 74 mph threshold of a Category 1 hurricane. It was moving north-northwest at 29 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center, but will slow down as it reaches Hispaniola late Saturday and moves over eastern Cuba on Sunday.
“We really have to see when it emerges from Cuba,” Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Meteorologist Diane Kacmarik said. “It parallels along some of those mountains in Cuba that would beat it up before it gets out into the water again.”
If Elsa survives Cuba and re-enters the warm Gulf waters, it could regain strength. The key is when will the storm turn and in what direction? It is expected to turn north-northwest, but the models aren’t in agreement.
Tampa Bay has remained in the cone of uncertainty for days. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday declared a state of emergency in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Manatee counties and the counties south to Miami-Dade.
But Elsa’s future seemed a long way off as the bay area prepared for Independence Day.
As Linda Preister Steely of Tampa waited out a passing downpour underneath the Home Depot awning at 1712 N Dale Mabry Highway, she said the storm isn’t going to stop her from celebrating the Fourth of July with friends. She plans to be on the 14th floor of a Bayshore Boulevard high rise.
“There’s a 180 (degree) view and you can see all the fireworks across the sky,” she said.
She was also excited to spend time with friends again after the surging coronavirus pandemic wiped out last year’s July 4 holiday.
Garrett Adams, 23, and Daylon Shepherd, 22, who said they would never let something like a hurricane disrupt their holiday plans. The Hillsborough Community College students plan to throw an all-day Fourth of July house party, and were at the same Home Depot to secure the proper equipment.
“The whole reason we’re here is to buy a bucket to keep our keg cold,” Shepherd said. “That was happening with or without the storm.”
Some were already in the midst of their holiday, but Saturday’s showers made that difficult. Gregg Schwartz fished from Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach with his wife, Michelle, on an overcast, windy morning. The Minnesota couple flew into the Tampa International Airport on Thursday to celebrate the Fourth of July in Florida, but that wasn’t working out the way they had hoped.
“We were supposed to go deep sea fishing today,” said Gregg Schwartz, 49. But their guide called and expressed concerns about the 4-foot tall waves.
So they fished from the pier instead. When Michelle Schwartz heard about Elsa, the 47-year-old’s first thought was “that we should’ve went someplace else.”
Still, they wasn’t too concerned — they plan to enjoy the fireworks and then fly home Monday.
Charice Coston, 39, and her husband Gerald Mckenzie, 53, made the seven hour drive from Atlanta to the bay area to be with family Friday. Then Saturday they camped out on Clearwater Beach with Coston’s cousin, 56-year-old Denise Bee of Wesley Chapel.
A former Florida resident, Coston wasn’t worried about the storm. In past years, she prepared for incoming hurricanes while living in Daytona Beach, and the storms always seemed to blow over.
The family planned to stay in Tampa Bay until Monday, which gives them time to get out before Elsa arrives.
“We’re going to be cautious,” Coston said, “but we’re still going to carry out our family plans.”
After last year’s pandemic summer, Coston said she was happy to be outside again.
“It feels very liberating,” she said. “Like they say, outside is open.”
Cousins Azauni Peterkin, 20, and Celeste Parker, 18, drove from Brandon to Clearwater to spend Saturday on the beach. But it rained off and on that morning, as tourists and locals alike braved the storm.
Peterkin planned to relax on the Fourth of July, while Parker had plans to work at her job at an amusement park. Parker said she wasn’t very concerned about the approaching storm this weekend and planned to prepare as normal by stocking up on water.
The two feared something else might impact their weekend plans: The Red Tide blooms that have been sending thousands of dead fish washing ashore in the bay area.
“We were concerned about the red tide,” Parker said.
But when they visited the beach Saturday, it was free of the dead fish plaguing other Tampa Bay shores.
The blooms have lessened along the Pinellas beaches, but increased in Tampa Bay itself, and the fish kills are now being found along the St. Petersburg and Tampa coasts.
Some actually did get ready for the storm.
A pile of sand stood high in the parking lot of Helen S. Howarth Community Park in Pinellas Park. City employee Dennis Montana, 68, said 13 people had stopped by to fill sandbags since the self-service site had opened at noon.
He predicts a busier Sunday and Monday. Sunday’s hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“People are getting ready for the fourth,” Montana said. “People are probably pausing their storm preparation.”
The few who came to fill sandbags said they weren’t too worried about Elsa.
Justin Warren, 29, has lived at his Pinellas Park home since he was 3. He says he’s not worried about flooding in his neighborhood, but it never hurts to be prepared.
“Whenever the city offers (sandbags) for free, I take it,” Warren said.
Brother-in-laws Tan Le, 52, and Vu Vo, 48, see fillings sandbags as just a normal part of their storm preparations. Both filled their gas tanks and have assembled their food and water supplies.
“We usually prepare for storms when we see something coming,” Le said. “We want to watch out.”
However, Le knows that things can change quickly with Florida storms. So while Elsa’s path remains uncertain, he’ll keep checking the latest spaghetti models.
Melissa Cygan, 42, also decided to take Elsa seriously. She went to a St. Petersburg Home Depot and loaded up on supplies: paper towels, batteries, water and candles. But she joked that she didn’t want to prepare too much — otherwise the storm might turn away.
She didn’t make any big July 4 plans this weekend, but after last year, she expects Tampa Bay to party hard.
“I think it’s going to be huge,” Cygan said. “People are ready to celebrate.”
Ron Wanek, 65, was out at the Publix at 3700 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg Publix just doing his regular shopping. He said he got ready for hurricane season in May, so he’s not worried. He’s a longtime Tampa Bay resident and this storm doesn’t worry him.
He also knows how much this Fourth of July means to people after what happened last year.
“I’m glad for everyone else,” he said.
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2021 Tampa Bay Times hurricane guide
IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE: Seven hurricane myths that need to go away
BACK-UP YOUR DATA: Protect your data, documents and photos
BUILD YOUR HURRICANE KIT: Gear up — and mask up — before the storm hits
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Here’s how to keep your pets as safe as you
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter