ST. PETERSBURG — Hurricane Elsa chugged up to Tampa Bay overnight Tuesday, leaving behind soggy lawns but little damage as it weakened into a tropical storm, then moved further up Florida’s coast and swung inland.
There were no reported fatalities from the season’s first hurricane to menace the state, and local first responders said no one needed overnight rescuing from flooding or other storm-related problems.
Limited power outages affected tens of thousands of residents in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties Wednesday morning, and there were scattered instances in the Tampa Bay area of flooded roads and parks and downed trees. Along Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, sidewalks were littered with dead fish, horseshoe crabs and debris washed up from storm surge. An early morning driver in Brandon ended up with a tree branch on their car roof.
Officials warned that there’s a long hurricane season ahead for the disaster-prone state and that Floridians should not let their guard down after largely being spared major problems from Elsa.
“I would just caution people, this part of the year is really not the major leagues for tropical cyclone activity,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a briefing Wednesday morning. He added, “There is going to be more activity. We don’t have anything on the horizon, but people just need to be prepared and as these storms come, we’re going to have to deal with them.”
Experts have said 2021 will likely be an above-normal year for hurricanes, with Colorado State University predicting that there will be 17 named storms, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes.
“Elsa’s a great reminder that hurricane season is here,” said Dennis Feltgen, communications and public affairs officer at the National Hurricane Center. He said that while the core of the storm stayed off Tampa Bay’s coast, some parts of the state saw flooding, storm surge and power outages.
Feltgen noted that it’s been 100 years since Tampa Bay “had a direct hit from a major hurricane, which is an unbelievable statistic. Whether that changes this year or holds up, we don’t know.”
Elsa’s approach came as disaster responders in Florida were also dealing with the complicated search operation in Miami-Dade County following the deadly condo collapse in Surfside. Feeder bands of bad weather at times forced teams to pause their recovery efforts, although South Florida didn’t see hurricane-force winds.
After going across Cuba, Tropical Storm Elsa moved up Florida’s west coast, regaining hurricane status for several hours Tuesday evening. It dropped back to tropical storm status in the National Hurricane Center’s 2 a.m. advisory, with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph — just below the 74 mph threshold to be classified as a Category 1 hurricane. At that point, the storm was about even with Pinellas County.
Elsa made landfall in Florida’s Big Bend region about 11 a.m. and headed north into Georgia.
DeSantis said that Elsa appeared to take a “wobble to the west” as the storm neared Tampa Bay, which may have “potentially minimized” impacts.
Still, some areas, including parts of southeast Manatee, saw up to 10 inches of rain, according to Paul Close, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Tampa Bay. Some parts of Tampa Bay saw wind gusts up to 60 mph, he said.
There also may have been an isolated tornado in east Pasco County, although there have not been reports of tornado damage.
The Tampa Bay region appeared to quickly collect itself and get back to normal business. Tampa International Airport, which suspended operations at 5 p.m. Tuesday because of the storm, resumed operations at 8:30 a.m. Tampa Electric Co. and Duke Energy Florida worked to restore power to thousands of residents, although hundreds were still reportedly without power by the afternoon, according to outage maps.
Dealing with Elsa was not the ending Rudolph Perez of Delaware had in mind for his vacation with his 5-year-old daughter, Elianna.
“In my head, I was just constantly imagining what this hurricane would be like, and our room was facing the water, too,” said Perez, 32. “We were just like sitting ducks on this little island of land surrounded by water.”
Despite the weather and a canceled flight home, Perez said the trip went well. Rescheduling the flight gave him and his daughter a little more vacation time. And luckily, Elianna said she never got scared about the storm.
“Well, maybe a little bit about a tornado, but not really,” she said. “Not even when it was raining a whole lot and I saw a spider come up through the floor. It was a tiny one and I let it crawl on my boot.”
Gulfport resident Deb Frank, 59, and her son Noah Brown, 25, woke shortly after 2 a.m. Wednesday to survey the damage. They were relieved to find no flooding or scattered debris in their street or anywhere else in the neighborhood.
Frank, who has lived in the area since 2005, said she expected the storm surge to be much worse. Parts of Gulfport tend to flood.
“I took everything off the porch and out of the yard,” she said. “But there was nothing. The trees were moving, but there wasn’t even that much wind.”
Several residents made comparisons between Elsa and Tropical Storm Eta, which blew into Tampa Bay in November on a similar path, causing flooding and damage.
Elsa was “quite docile” compared to Eta, said Wilson Gates, 39, who was staying in his brother’s home in Shore Acres, an area prone to flooding. Last year, he said, flooding from Eta required the home to be gutted, he said. This time, all he saw was a flooded intersection nearby.
“We dodged a bullet again,” said Lindsay Seger, a store manager at Nekton Surf Shop in Indian Rocks Beach who stayed up late to watch the rain overnight. “If it had hit us directly and made landfall, I think we would have gotten a lot more flooding.”
The storm didn’t seem to put a damper on some residents and visitors.
At O’Maddy’s in Gulfport, bartender Chris Hill said the popular restaurant and bar stayed open until 3 a.m. Wednesday despite the uncertain forecast, and was open again by 8 a.m.
The scene on Tuesday night was similar to the evening Eta struck, Hill said, when the bar was packed with regulars while rain bands battered the downtown area and storm surge pushed several feet of water into the bar and other businesses nearby. The bar didn’t flood this time around.
“This isn’t anything compared to Eta,” said Hill, 51. “We got lucky.”
Afternoon winds and heavy clouds — remnants of Elsa — didn’t deter Joseph Petrak, 52, of Ohio, from hanging out Wednesday on the beach in Redington Shores and reading.
He shrugged off questions about the storm.
“I slept through whatever it was,” Petrak said.
Times staff writers Malena Carollo, Anastasia Dawson, Josh Fiallo, Helen Freund, Diti Kohli, Tony Marrero, Genevieve Redsten, Christopher Spata, Gabe Stern and Natalie Weber 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