Preparation pays — but so does luck — and Tampa Bay had an abundance of both with the passing glance from Tropical Storm Elsa. The storm, which passed overnight Tuesday, caused little damage in the Tampa Bay region, and by Wednesday morning, residents, businesses and government agencies were getting back to normal. It’s a testament to preparing for the hurricane season, and to the unpredictability of Mother Nature.
Elsa briefly regained hurricane status Tuesday evening in the Gulf of Mexico before weakening back to a tropical storm as it neared the Tampa Bay area. The storm center remained offshore, and dry air and wind shear helped blunt the storm, which brought winds in the 40-to-50-mph range to the bay area, with gusts up to 60-mph, below the 70-mph gusts many feared.
Elsa came ashore as a tropical storm with 65-mph winds late Wednesday morning in Taylor County, in Florida’s Big Bend area, about 75 miles southeast of Tallahassee. By that time, the cleanup in Tampa Bay was well underway. The storm initially left more than 15,400 Tampa Electric Co. customers and 4,000 Duke Energy customers without power, the majority of those in Tampa Bay, but most customers had their power restored by early Wednesday. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties reported only minor damage, and flooding was isolated. Gov. Ron DeSantis reported the storm was less destructive along the gulf coast than he and other officials had expected, with little significant structural damage across the state. “Clearly,” the governor said, “this could have been worse from what we were looking at 72 hours ago.” Even Tampa International Airport, which suspended operations in anticipation of Elsa late Tuesday, reopened Wednesday morning earlier than planned.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was right that residents seemed prepared and acted responsibly. Many businesses closed early, residents largely stayed put and many used the long July 4 holiday weekend to batten down their properties and lay in supplies. Local governments did a good job of communicating school and office closures, and of imploring residents and visitors alike to take the tropical storm seriously. The region’s heavy rains in June also prompted residents and business owners to shore up their properties, reflecting increasing awareness of Tampa Bay’s risk for flooding.
Local governments, though, need to expand ready access to sandbags, making them more available throughout the entire hurricane season. And public employees and volunteers need to mobilize to help older residents who cannot load or transport the bags themselves. Agencies should continue using social media to push emergency alerts. And nobody should take for granted the light damage Elsa caused. A slight change in the storm’s track or intensity could have produced an entirely different outcome.
But as with any good luck, we’ll take it. Elsa provided a trial run early in this hurricane season of what Florida may ultimately face. This is one experience you don’t want matching the hype, and that’s possible only by taking every storm seriously and wishing for the best from nature.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.