Hurricane Elsa remained on course to brush by the Tampa Bay region as a Category 1 storm late Tuesday, according to the National Hurricane Center.’s 11 p.m. Tuesday advisory.
A hurricane warning was issued for Pinellas County at 2 p.m. and then hours later, Elsa was upgraded from tropical storm status. Meteorologists expect Elsa to pass Tampa Bay overnight Tuesday and make landfall to the north in the Citrus-Levy-Dixie county areas.
Elsa was generating maximum sustained winds of 75 mph with higher gusts, according to the 11 p.m. advisory, which is the minimum level of sustained winds to be considered a Category 1 hurricane.
Forecasters initially expected Elsa to be a tropical storm when it brushed past the Tampa Bay coastline, but the hurricane center projects the storm will remain a hurricane until it makes landfall.
The National Weather Services also extended the tornado watch for the Tampa Bay region and much of central and southwest Florida until 8 a.m.
Elsa gained just a bit more strength as it traveled through warm Gulf waters.
“It’s not that much different, we’re just increasing by 5 mph,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Stephen Shively. ”The impacts won’t change and the storm surge we’re producing remains the same. The only difference is that we’ll call it Hurricane Elsa instead of Tropical Storm Elsa.”
Elsa has many similarities with Tropical Storm Eta, which drenched Tampa Bay in November. Shiveley said meteorologists at the National Weather Service’s Ruskin Office have briefly mixed the storms up in conversation at times.
Eta passed just north of Tampa Bay after tracking close to the Pinellas County coast — the exact path Elsa is projected to take. Eta also arrived in the middle of the night, causing floodwaters to inundate areas around South Tampa and Tampa General Hospital. Bayshore Boulevard and the Tampa Riverwalk were also completely underwater, while deputies in Pinellas County deployed high-water vehicles to rescue 33 people.
But the storms aren’t identical. Elsa’s arrival off the Pinellas coast isn’t expected to coincide with high tide, according to Shiveley. That means the region will be slightly less susceptible to flooding on the coast. The hurricane center estimates Tampa Bay will experience two to four feet of storm surge.
“There will still be flooding and Bayshore Boulevard will still be underwater like always,” Shiveley said. “But it won’t be quite as dramatic as last year if the timing remains the same.”
Flooding isn’t the only risk as the extended tornado watch indicates. The increased risk of tornadoes is common as tropical systems near landfall. While they’re significantly weaker than tornadoes that spawn in the plains, Shiveley said that they can still cause significant damage — especially to manufactured homes, carports and some trees.
As for rain totals, Elsa is expected to drop its share. Forecasters said much of Florida’s Gulf Coast is expected to see wind, rain, and surge impacts. This area of Florida will be hit with Elsa’s east side, which meteorologists say is more powerful. Exact figures will range anywhere from two to six inches, according to the hurricane center.
Conditions will deteriorate starting Tuesday afternoon into Tuesday night as squalls from Elsa’s outer bands move into the area, bringing with them heavy rain, gusty winds and an increased threat of tornadoes, Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Juli Marquez said.
Sustained tropical storm winds of at least 39 mph, with gusts near 70 mph, are possible on the coast, closer to where Elsa’s center is expected to pass. Individual winds gusts could reach up to about 55 mph even in areas away far from the storm’s center, Marquez said.
Marquez said Elsa’s rainfall will land on Tampa Bay terrain already saturated by heavy rains in the past couple of weeks. She noted heavy rain on Saturday flooded some Tampa streets.
“So an additional several inches of rain could cause more flooding of streets and low lying areas, and certainly we have to watch for river flooding,” Marquez said.
Forecasters were watching Tuesday for Elsa to make a predicted turn to the northeast, which would dictate where the storm will make landfall, she said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded a state of emergency to cover a dozen counties where Elsa was expected to make a swift passage on Wednesday, and President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state ahead of the storm.
This is a developing story. Check tampabay.com for updates.
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