Tropical Storm Elsa began hitting the Florida Keys with heavy rain and winds Tuesday morning, prompting a hurricane watch from Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay to the Steinhatchee River in Florida’s Big Bend area.
A westward shift spared the lower Florida Keys a direct hit from Elsa, but the islands were still getting plenty of rain and wind Tuesday. Tropical storm warnings were posted from Craig Key westward to the Dry Tortugas, and for the west coast of Florida from Flamingo northward to the Ochlockonee River.
The Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center has also warned of life-threatening storm surges, flooding and isolated tornadoes. The storm surge could reach 5 feet over normally dry land in the Tampa Bay area if Elsa passes at high tide, forecasters said.
Experts say the Tampa area is especially vulnerable to storm surge because the bay and the offshore waters are shallow.
Across the Tampa Bay area, events, government offices and schools were closing down ahead of the storm.
The Tampa Bay Rays postponed their Tuesday game against Cleveland, turning Wednesday’s game into a doubleheader.
Most summer schools will be closed through Wednesday, and attractions like zoos and museums were closing early.
Tampa International Airport planned to shut down Tuesday at 5 p.m.
Free sandbags were handed out in other parts of the storm’s path. A limited number of storm shelters opened Tuesday morning in at least four counties around the Tampa Bay area. No evacuations have been ordered.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded a state of emergency to cover a dozen counties Elsa is expected to move through Wednesday.
Bands of rain were expected to reach Surfside, Florida, soaking the rubble of the Champlain Towers South. Part of the condo collapsed June 24, killing at least 32 people. The rest of it was demolished over the weekend.
Search and rescue crews have worked through rain in search of more than 100 others listed as missing. However, they have to pause when lightning threatens. In addition, officials said a garage area in the debris already filled with water Monday.