Tropical Storm Elsa was downgraded from hurricane strength on Saturday but Tampa Bay and much of the Florida peninsula remains within its potential path.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency that afternoon in advance of the storm for several coastal counties, including the Tampa Bay counties of Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota.
The declaration also covers Southwest Florida and South Florida: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Lee, Levy, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. The governor’s order enables the state to mobilize people and resources to prepare for the storm and respond to its aftermath.
The National Hurricane Center’s latest advisory had Tropical Storm Elsa moving over or near portions of the west coast of Florida and put it in close proximity to Tampa Bay on Tuesday. A tropical storm watch was declared for the Florida Keys, from Craig Key west to the Dry Tortugas. The government of Cuba issued a tropic storm warning for several provinces while the Dominican Republic expired its watch at 8 p.m.
The storm was passing 175 miles east-southeast of Montego Bay, Jamaica, according to the Hurricane Center’s 11 p.m. Saturday advisory, but had slowed down to 17 mph moving west-northwest. Its maximum-sustained winds also dropped to 65 mph.
The storm was expected to continue slowing as it moves over Jamaica and Cuba on Sunday. Then it is expected to exit Cuba and turn northwest Sunday night or early Monday as it reaches warm Gulf of Mexico waters and head for the Florida Straits.
There was still plenty of uncertainty over the direction the storm may take and whether it could regain hurricane strength after it passes over Cuba.
Elsa also sparked fears in South Florida that tropical-force weather could impact the rescue efforts at the site of the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South building as early as Monday.
“This will protect our search and rescue teams. We don’t know when it could fall over,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a Saturday news conference, according to the Miami Herald. “With these gusts, that would create a real severe hazard.”
Lightning and rain has hampered and halted search efforts at the Surfside site. The portion of the tower that’s still standing will soon be demolished so searchers can safety resume their work, according to the Herald. The death toll stood at 24 on Saturday with more than 120 people still missing.
“The fear was that the hurricane may take the building down for us — and take it down in the wrong direction, on top of the pile where we have victims,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told the Herald.
The governor said at a Tallahassee news conference that Florida emergency officials are monitoring the track of the storm and preparing to deploy resources to affected counties and the site of the partly collapsed building in Surfside.
“I want to thank all the first responders on site in Surfside and everyone here in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) that is preparing for the storm,” DeSantis said at the center.
The governor urged residents to start preparing for the storm and stocking up with at least seven days worth of supplies.
A tropical storm warning was in effect for the southern portion of Haiti from Port Au Prince to the southern border with the Dominican Republic. Parts of Haiti were experience tropical storm force conditions, with Port Au Prince recording a wind gust of 51 mph.
The storm was forecast to result in storm surge that could result in coastal flooding and torrential rainfall in some places. Rainfall of 4 to 8 inches with maximum isolated downpours of 15 inches were expected today into Sunday in southern Hispaniola and Jamaica. Parts of Cuba could see 5 to 10 inches of rain Sunday into Monday with some areas seeing more and experiencing flash flooding and mudslides.
What happens with the storm from there could depend on how the storm fares as it heads over Hispaniola and Cuba.
As a result, Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker said it is still too early to truly gauge what types of effects Elsa may have on Tampa Bay. Much of the forecast will become clearer once the storm moves over the mountains of Hispaniola.
Linker said the storm is so disorganized and moving so fast, it’s plausible that it breaks up entirely as it moves through the island nations. He said it’s hard to make a definitive forecast more than 12-24 hours away at this time.
Late Saturday morning, the station was predicting that Elsa should weaken further on Sunday and said, while there’s a small window for it to strengthen again, that is looking less likely.
The updated forecast shows the storm may reach the Florida Keys by around 2 a.m. on Tuesday. It could move up the peninsula over the course of the day, with Tampa Bay in the middle of the so-called cone of uncertainty late Tuesday afternoon.
Tampa Bay officials said this week they still planned to hold Sunday’s Independence Day fireworks shows as the storm’s worst effects weren’t expected for another couple of days.
Elsa first became a tropical storm on Thursday, setting a new record as the earliest fifth named storm —- or “e” storm — to form on record. It beat the previous record-holder, 2020′s Tropical Storm Edouard, by five days.
It is not a record that bodes well for those who live in the path of Atlantic hurricanes. Early storm formation was a hallmark of the historically active 2020 season, which saw a record 30 named storms form, including 14 hurricanes and seven that reached Category 3 strength or greater.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts an above-normal number of storms will form this year (14 being average.) But is Elsa’s early formation a sign this could be another active 2020-like season?
While Elsa’s future is uncertain, its current path recalls the last July hurricane to strike Cuba and menace Florida: 2005′s Hurricane Dennis. It struck the island nation twice as a Category 4 storm and then reached the Florida Panhandle as a Cat-3.
The 2005 hurricane season was the most destructive on record, spawning Category 5 monsters Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma. It was also the most season active on record, until last year.
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