Tropical Storm Elsa’s outer bands were hitting much of South Florida early Tuesday afternoon as the center approached Florida’s west coast, where it is expected to bring heavy rain, damaging wind and perhaps life-threatening storm surges later in the day.
Elsa’s center, with sustained winds of 60 mph, was over water about 215 miles south of Tampa as of 11 a.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said.
It whipped the Florida Keys Tuesday morning with rain and sustained winds of 30-40 mph. Elsa is expected to move near Florida’s west coast Tuesday afternoon and night, and perhaps make landfall by Wednesday morning along the north Florida Gulf Coast.
And it could strengthen into a hurricane before then, forecasters said.
“The warm ocean waters give it that fuel for the engine to really fire back up again … (and) it could be near or at hurricane strength” when Elsa makes landfall by early Wednesday, CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam said.
A hurricane watch – meaning hurricane conditions such as winds of at least 74 mph are possible – is in effect Tuesday morning from near St. Petersburg in west-central Florida to southern Taylor County in northern Florida’s Big Bend region.
A tropical storm warning – alerting people to expect conditions including winds of at least 39 mph – is in effect for much of Florida’s west coast.
Elsa’s outer bands also could drop rain on Florida’s eastern side, perhaps affecting areas like the community of Surfside, where search and rescue teams still are working at the site of a deadly building collapse. Elsa’s approach prompted a controlled demolition Sunday of the remaining portion of the Champlain Towers South condo building.
But the major wind and rain threats are expected to be in western Florida.
About 3 to 8 inches of rain could fall from the Florida Keys to western parts of the Florida peninsula through Wednesday – threatening flash flooding, the hurricane center said.
Storm surge warnings are in place for the west coast of Florida from Bonita Beach through the northern portions of the Big Bend region, with the highest surge expected to be between 3 and 5 feet from Englewood to the outlet for the Aucilla River – including Tampa Bay.
Isolated tornadoes are also possible.
People in southern and western Florida have been preparing by filling sand bags, opening shelters, closing businesses and schools, and activating local emergency operations centers.
Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded a state of emergency Monday to cover more than 25 counties. President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state ahead of the storm. The declaration, which began Sunday, authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts in southern Florida.
Cuba was getting heavy rainfall Tuesday morning from Elsa. Rainfall of 5 to 15 inches is expected there through Tuesday night, threatening significant flash flooding and mudslides.
Residents and businesses prepare
Elsa, which briefly was at hurricane strength Friday and early Saturday to become the first hurricane of the season, made landfall Monday in Cuba and tore through the Cayman Islands, saturating both areas with heavy rain and strong winds, causing landslides and flooding.
Authorities across Florida offered free sandbags to residents to help prevent flooding and are encouraging people to prepare for the storm by stocking up on supplies and heeding local warnings.
At least four counties in the Tampa area – Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Manatee – opened shelters for residents, while others have activated emergency operations centers to prepare for the storm.
“We’ve had other storms in the past that seemed like nothing but they end up with a lot of flood damage,” the emergency official warned.
Tampa International Airport said Tuesday it would close to commercial flights at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday, and to cargo flights at 10 p.m. ET. It anticipated reopening Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET.
People lined up Monday in Manatee and Hillsborough counties to fill free sandbags to help prevent flooding.
One new Florida resident told WFTS she’s never been in a tropical storm.
“This is our first experience. We got the notification that we could get sandbags, and we’re right on some water, so we just want to do everything that we can at this point,” the woman said.
Even some businesses are closing ahead of the storm.
Niall Bowen, owner of Old Town Bakery in Key West, will close his business Tuesday because the storm will impact his supply chain and deliveries, he told CNN affiliate WSVN.
“As far as the impact goes, I don’t think we’re going to have a major weather event,” Bowen said.
Into Georgia and the Carolinas later this week
The current forecast following landfall in western Florida has the storm moving to the northeast across the lowlands of Georgia, perhaps as a tropical storm, on Wednesday – and the Carolinas, perhaps as a tropical depression, on Thursday.
It could exit into the Atlantic on Thursday or Friday. Elsa could then be a rainmaker for the extreme eastern seaboard until it pushes into the north Atlantic.
CNN’s Jackson Dill, Monica Garrett, Michael Guy and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.