A storm that has lashed the Caribbean and the Florida Keys with pounding rain and gusty winds has strengthened into a hurricane.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Elsa was carrying winds as high as 75mph as it hurtled toward Florida’s northern Gulf Coast.
The Category 1 storm is expected to make landfall between 8-9am on Wednesday, somewhere between the Tampa Bay area and the Big Bend region.
In addition to damaging winds and heavy rains, the Miami-based US National Hurricane Centre warned of life-threatening storm surges, flooding and isolated tornadoes.
The Tampa area is highly vulnerable to storm surge because the offshore waters and Tampa Bay are quite shallow, experts say, and Governor Ron DeSantis said the area would take a hard hit from the storm overnight.
Now is “not a time to joyride” because “we do have hazardous conditions out there,” Mr DeSantis said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Across the Tampa Bay region which is home to about 3.5 million people, events, government offices and schools were closing down early on Tuesday in advance of the storm, and Tampa International Airport shut down at 5pm.
Duke Energy, the main electric utility in the Tampa Bay area, said in a statement it has about 3,000 employees, contractors, tree specialists and support personnel ready to respond to power outages in the storm’s aftermath.
Additional crews are being brought in from other states served by Duke Energy.
“We’re trained and prepared, and we want to ensure our customers are safe and prepared for any impacts from the storm,” said Todd Fountain, the utility’s Florida storm director.
The fifth game of the Stanley Cup finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens, set for Wednesday night, will take place, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said.
The Lightning lead the NHL’s championship series 3-1 and could clinch the title with a victory.
Meanwhile, bands of rain reached Surfside on Florida’s Atlantic coast, soaking the rubble of the Champlain Towers South, which collapsed June 24, killing at least 36 people.
Search and rescue crews have worked through rain in search of more than 100 others unaccounted for, although lightning forced rescuers to pause their work for two hours early on Tuesday, officials said.
After Florida, forecasters predicted Elsa would hit coastal Georgia and South Carolina, portions of which were under a tropical storm warning.