Elsa was downgraded to a tropical storm just as it started lashing the Tampa Bay region with strong winds and rain early Wednesday.
Tampa Bay has been in Elsa’s path since the storm was born, but it saved its most blood-pressure raising antics for Tuesday. The former hurricane started the day as a tropical storm. By the evening, as it skirted the Gulf Coast and headed for the bay area, its maximum sustained winds reached 75 mph and it regained hurricane strength as a Category 1 storm.
And then, just before 2 a.m., as it pulled even with Tampa just 60 miles offshore, the National Hurricane Center announced that it had weakened once more.
Heavy rain and gusty winds continued to batter the region early Wednesday and the worst of the storm had yet to impact the region. Still, the Tampa Bay region has not been hit by a hurricane in a century — not since the 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane came ashore in Tarpon Springs — and Elsa’s weakness was another fortuitous meteorological moment for a region extremely vulnerable to even a strong tropical storm.
But even a weakened Elsa was felt across Tampa Bay.
The entire region was placed under a tornado watch until 8 a.m. The strongest wind gust in St. Petersburg was 52 mph recorded about 1 a.m. at Albert Whitted Airport, according to the National Weather Service’s Ruskin bureau. The strongest wind gusts in Tampa were 35 mph at Tampa International Airport and 40 mph readings scattered around the area. None of those quite topped the 54-mph gust recorded at Sarasota–Bradenton International Airport at 10:46 p.m.
Radar spotted a tornado in east Pasco County, near Dade City, around 1:10 a.m. but there were no reports on the ground. Rain to that point was moderate, with 1½ to 2 inches across the region.
By 1:30 a.m., Tampa Electric Co. reported more than 11,000 customers without power, with large outages in Thonotosassa and Ballast Point. More than 2,000 Duke Energy customers lost power in Pinellas County at the same time.
Early Wednesday morning, meteorologists watched a band of gusty winds and heavy rain close to Elsa’s center that was expected to hit Pinellas County about 2 a.m.
“That is likely the worst winds and heavy rains that Elsa has to offer Pinellas County,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Tony Hurt.
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Just after 2 a.m., Pinellas and Pasco officials said they hadn’t received reports of significant damage, flooding or detritus blocking roadways.
A tropical storm for much of Tuesday, Elsa regained hurricane strength at about 7:45 p.m. as it approached Florida’s Gulf Coast. Forecasters had expected Elsa to edge past the Tampa Bay area as a tropical storm but said at that point the difference between Elsa the hurricane or the tropical storm was mostly semantic. They expected the same effects as they had earlier in the day: storm surge and flooding, high winds and possible tornadoes.
“The only difference is that we’ll call it Hurricane Elsa instead of Tropical Storm Elsa,” said Stephen Shively of the National Weather Service.
Even before Elsa became a hurricane, the region hunkered down. Hurricane hardened-Floridians tend not to take tropical storms as seriously, but Tampa Bay took Elsa seriously.
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 Airport, 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 flood-prone neighborhoods like St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres, where Tropical Storm Eta left damage in November, residents braced for inundation. In Tampa, a group of volunteers helped older people fill sandbags. Local leaders didn’t issue evacuation notices, but they urged residents in low-lying areas to stay with friends or relatives, at a hotel or at a public shelter.
“This is not the biggest storm we’ve seen,” Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, “but it’s also not an insignificant event.”
That level of concern may have had a lot to do with the similarities Elsa shared with another tropical storm, Eta, which surprised Tampa Bay with a drenching and flooding in November. Shiveley said meteorologists at the National Weather Service’s Ruskin office have briefly mixed the storms up in conversation at times.
“The exact same stars are aligning, and we’re expecting the exact same setup,” said Shore Acres resident Robert Robbins, whose home took on 10 inches of water — and about $80,000 in damage — in last year’s storm. “We haven’t even finished remodeling.”
Eta passed just north of Tampa Bay after tracking close to the Pinellas coast — the exact path Elsa is projected to take. Eta also arrived in the middle of the night in 2020, causing flood waters 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.
Moving past Tampa Bay, Elsa was forecast to make landfall in the Citrus-Levy-Dixie county areas later Wednesday morning.
As the region prepared Tuesday, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor warned residents not to be complacent. She also seemed confident that Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, scheduled for Amalie Arena on Wednesday, could still take place. She predicted a Stanley Cup-clinching win at home for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lead the series 3-1.
“If the storm, as predicted, continues on the same path with the same amount of wind, and nothing out of the ordinary happens,” Castor said, “then we anticipate that we’ll be able to have the final game of the Lightning series tomorrow evening here in Tampa.”
Times staff writers CT Bowen, Malena Carollo, Josh Fiallo, Tony Marrero, Christopher O’Donnell, Genevieve Redsten and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.
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