TAMPA — The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm watch for Tampa Bay and much of Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sunday afternoon as Elsa crept closer to the state.
A storm surge was also in effect, which extended from Bonita Beach on the East Coast and moved northward past Tampa Bay to the Suwannee River. Elsa is expected to reach Tampa Bay overnight Tuesday.
Tropical Storm Elsa began to lose some of its momentum Sunday morning as it moved closer to Cuba, but still threatened to deliver heavy rain, strong winds and coastal flooding when it reaches the Florida Keys late Monday en route to the Tampa Bay area.
As of the hurricane center’s 8 p.m. update, Elsa’s center was just south of Cuba, with sustaining winds of up to around 60 mph. The storm could strengthen slightly after it crosses the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, the hurricane center said.
The storm could bring two to four inches of rain across the Florida Keys, Florida peninsula and coastal Georgia from Monday to Wednesday, with up to six inches in some places. There could be storm surges of two to four feet in the Tampa Bay area.
Elsa, the fifth named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, pushed between Jamaica and Cuba during the weekend, when it briefly reached hurricane strength and left three dead after battering the Caribbean islands. Cuba evacuated 180,000 people along the island’s southern region.
Elsa was sandwiched in warm, deep waters between Jamaica and southern Cuba midday Sunday, perfect conditions for the storm to recharge, said Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker. But at the same time, the storm’s structure has begun to tilt slightly, Linker said — a strong indication that the storm is becoming disorganized.
Coming as it does while Elsa approaches the mountains of Cuba — where it loses some of the warm, moist Caribbean air that fuels it — this development promised to further pull apart the spiraling storm.
Among forecasters, all eyes were on Elsa’s encounter with Cuba on Monday. Will the storm take all day to travel the length of the island or just clip a corner before finding the warm sea again?
“What comes out of northern Cuba will be extremely important for determining what effects we’ll have here in Tampa Bay,” Linker said.
On the east side of the storm, where the Tampa Bay area likely would be, there will be gusty winds and heavy rain but nothing too significant, he said: “Generally speaking, it will not be a big deal for our area.”
As of 2 p.m. Sunday, the Tampa Bay region remained squarely within the forecast track’s cone of uncertainty — as it has since forecasters first began tracking the storm.
Florida was expected to get its first look at Elsa late Monday. On Tuesday, tropical storm-force winds of 39 mph or higher are possible in southwest Florida and west Central Florida, especially along the coastline, Linker said. The storm was expected to reach the Tampa Bay area overnight Tuesday.
Normal summer afternoon showers and thunderstorms were expected Monday in the Tampa Bay area before the first effects of Elsa arrive.
Still, days of heavy rain preceding the storm raise the stakes, said Eric Oglesby, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Ruskin. Bayshore Boulevard and other flood-prone areas in and around south Tampa, for example, could see storm surges from Elsa of up to 3 feet high, Oglesby said.
“Anything up to 3 feet is usually kind of borderline,” Oglesby said. “Right at the edge of when we see more significant flooding impacts around Tampa Bay.”
By Sunday afternoon, the Manatee River had already crept past flood stage near its headwaters in Myakka City. The water’s depth reached 14.3 feet by noon on Sunday — well over the 11-foot flood stage. Weather service measurements showed the floodwaters slowly receding to about 13 feet by 2 p.m.
Even as anxiety began to ease over the latest Elsa forecasts, the University of South Florida announced Sunday that all classes would be conducted remotely Tuesday because of the threatening weather. Instructors were encouraged to “be flexible in cases where power outages may impede internet access.”
Residence halls and dining facilities on the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses will remain open Tuesday, and in-person classes were scheduled to resume Wednesday, the university said.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority also announced it would continue providing its scheduled bus services unless winds from Elsa reached 40 mph.
In Miami, where the impact from Elsa could be felt as early as Tuesday morning, reports of wind gusts between 50 mph and 60 mph spurred officials to fast-track plans for demolishing what remains of the Champlain Towers South, the condominium building that collapsed in Surfside on June 24.
“We have a building here in Surfside that is tottering. It is structurally unsound,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Saturday night. “And although the eye of the storm is not likely to pass over this direction, you could feel gusts in this area.”
Also on Saturday, DeSantis issued a state of emergency for 15 Florida counties, including the Tampa Bay counties of Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota.
Some parts of Florida could see up to 6 inches of rain from the storm.
Florida has also activated its price hotline for reporting storm-related price gouging, (866) 966-7226.
A tropical storm watch was in effect for the Florida Keys east of Craig Key, to Ocean Reef and Florida Bay. The southwest coast of Florida, from Flamingo north to Bonita Beach, was also placed under a tropical storm watch by Sunday afternoon. A Tropical storm warning was in effect for Craig Key westward to the Dry Tortugas.
A tropical storm warning means that tropical storm-like conditions are expected in an area within 48 hours, while a tropical storm watch means only that those conditions are possible, the National Hurricane Center said.
By 2 p.m. Sunday, Elsa was located about 40 miles south-southeast of Cabo Cruz, Cuba, carrying maximum sustained winds of around 60 mph. The storm continued to move northwest at about 14 mph, the National Hurricane Center said, and was expected to continue that track as it moves near or over eastern Cuba and approaches central Cuba Sunday night into early Monday morning.
Tropical-storm-force winds extend up to 115 miles out from its center, the hurricane center said.
Elsa is the fifth named storm of the 2021 Hurricane Season, the National Hurricane Center said. It’s also the earliest fifth-named storm on record for the Atlantic, breaking the record previously set by Edouard on July 6, 2020.
Elsa also became the first hurricane to hit Barbados in more than 60 years when it attacked on Friday as a Category 1 storm just before weakening back to a tropical storm.
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