For some hurricane-hardened Floridians, a tropical storm can be a “meh” weather event, one that might not even warrant moving your porch plants inside.
But with Tropical Storm Elsa projected to barrel along the state’s Gulf coast and whip storm surges of up to 4 feet, much of the Tampa Bay region was hunkered down and in emergency mode on Tuesday.
By early afternoon, data from hurricane hunter aircraft showed the storm strengthening, with sustained winds of 70 mph, leading the National Hurricane Center to say it expected the storm to sustain hurricane-strength winds before making landfall, likely in the Panhandle.
As if that wasn’t enough, the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for most of central and south Florida through 11 p.m.
Weather threats forced the early closure of summer school programs in the Tampa Bay region. Local airports canceled flights scheduled for Tuesday afternoon and evening, including more than 100 at Tampa International, which suspended passenger operations at 5 p.m.
Local government agencies suspended bus services, opened shelters and gave out tens of thousands of sandbags to residents concerned that heavy rainfall would overflow already saturated yards and retention ponds.
In St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres, a neighborhood known for flooding, Robert Robbins, 49, and Amber Kreeger, 30, lined hay bales along their driveway Tuesday afternoon.
The threat from Elsa came as they are recovering from Hurricane Eta in November.
That storm brought 10 inches of water inside their home, and at one point they felt an electric shock through the water, the couple said. The damage to their home cost about $80,000, although insurance paid most of that, they said.
Since November, Kreeger and Robbins have gutted the house and started to remodel. New appliances are sitting inside, yet to be installed.
The couple was hoping the barricades they set up would protect their home this time.
“The exact same stars are aligning, and we’re expecting the exact same setup,” said Robbins. “We haven’t even finished remodeling.”
Early storm bands passing through Hillsborough County Tuesday left about 1,800 Tampa Electric Co. customers without power by 3:30 p.m. Power outages were also reported in Pinellas and Pasco.
Storm surge and flooding were initially considered to be the greatest threat from Elsa, the first hurricane of the 2021 Atlantic storm season, when it barreled over the eastern Caribbean islands on Friday.
The risk of storm surge prompted Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to limit access to the county’s vulnerable barrier islands to its residents, employees who work there, and hotel and vacation rental guests from 6 p.m.
The storm’s track would likely push water onto barrier islands, other coastline areas and into Tampa Bay. That made flooding likely, especially during high tides early Wednesday morning, said Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Juli Marquez.
High tides were expected across Tampa Bay from about 1 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. and for locations in Hernando and Citrus counties from 1:30 a.m. to 4 a.m.
“This is not the biggest storm we’ve seen,” Gualtieri said, “but it’s also not an insignificant event.”
Sandbags and other flood defenses were deployed, especially in neighborhoods accustomed to flooding.
Hillsborough County officials reported giving out more than 41,600 sandbags over the past two days, with Pinellas County residents receiving another 15,000.
The city of Tampa gave out about 20,000 sandbags and St. Petersburg had given out more than 5,200 as of Monday night.
Joe Ammendolia, 50, who also lives in Shore Acres, was frustrated that he waited for more than an hour only to learn that residents were being rationed to 10 sandbags.
Ammendolia boosted his home’s defenses with play sand and “Quick Dam” flood barriers. He also bought a generator and a water pump in preparation for the storm.
“Ten sandbags won’t even cover a door,” he said.
Across Tampa Bay, local governments activated emergency operations centers to coordinate response efforts for the storm and warned residents to prepare.
Hillsborough officials opened a shelter at Riverview High School for residents concerned about staying in their homes during a severe weather event, such as those dependent on electricity for home medical needs. The county had not issued any evacuation notices as of 4 p.m.
Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton urged residents in low-lying, flood-prone areas to stay with friends or relatives, in a hotel or at one of the county’s two open shelters at the Lealman Exchange and the Ross Norton Recreation Center.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor warned residents not to be complacent. But she also sounded confident that Game 5 of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup finals, scheduled for Amalie Arena on Wednesday, could still take place. She predicted a home win for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“If the storm, as predicted, continues on the same path with the same amount of wind, and nothing out of the ordinary happens, then we anticipate that we’ll be able to have the final game of the Lightning series tomorrow evening here in Tampa,” Castor said.
Times reporters CT Bowen, Malena Carollo, Josh Fiallo, Tony Marrero and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.
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2021 Tampa Bay Times hurricane guide
IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
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NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter