Storm approaching Florida strengthens to hurricane

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A storm that has been lashing Florida over the past day has intensified into a hurricane and is expected to make landfall between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Wednesday. 

The National Weather Service said Tuesday that Hurricane Elsa was packing winds as high as 121 kilometres per hour as it hurtled toward Florida’s northern Gulf Coast. The Category 1 storm is expected to touch down somewhere between the Tampa Bay area and the Big Bend region.

Since the weekend, the developing storm has lashed the Caribbean and the Florida Keys and complicated the search for survivors in the deadly collapse of a Miami-area condominium 12 days ago.

In addition to damaging winds and heavy rains, the Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center warned of life-threatening storm surges, flooding and isolated tornadoes.

Frank Barakat carries his daughter Valentina, 2, through an shopping aisle dedicated for hurricane supplies as the Home Depot store in Miami on July 3, 2021. (Al Diaz/The Associated Press)

The Tampa area is highly vulnerable to storm surge because the offshore waters and Tampa Bay are quite shallow, experts say.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the area would take a hard hit from the storm overnight.

‘Not the time to joyride’

Now is “not a time to joyride” because “we do have hazardous conditions out there,” DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday.

Still, on the barrier island beach towns along the Gulf Coast, it was largely business as usual with few shutters or plywood boards going up early Tuesday.

Free sandbags were being handed out at several locations, and a limited number of storm shelters opened Tuesday morning in at least four counties around the Tampa Bay area, although no evacuations have been ordered.

WATCH: Tropical storm Elsa touches land in Cuba:

The south-central coast of Cuba was hammered by heavy winds and torrential downpour Monday as tropical storm Elsa made contact with the island. 0:47

Nancy Brindley, 85, who lives in a seaside house built in 1923, said she has experienced 34 previous tropical cyclones and is not having shutters put on her windows. Her main concern is what will happen to sand on the adjacent beach and the dunes that protect her house and others. She’s staying through the storm.

“The main concern here is, if it doesn’t speed up and decides to stall, there will be enormous erosion,” she said.

Friends Chris Wirtz, 47, and Brendan Peregrine, 44, were staying at a beachfront inn with their families. Both are from Tampa, about 40 kilometres across the bay and have been through many storms.

“Before we left, we knew it was coming,” Wirtz said.

Others were taking no chances. Annie Jones, 51, has lived along the Gulf Coast her entire life. She was buying ice and food at a local grocery store in advance of the storm.

Pedestrians dash across in intersection in Key West, Florida, amid heavy winds and rain associated with the beginnings of Hurricane Elsa on Tuesday. (Rob O’Neal/The Associated Press)

“I’ve seen this happen over the years and I decided to load up,” Jones said.

Across the Tampa Bay region that’s home to about 3.5 million people, events, government offices and schools were closing down early Tuesday in advance of the storm. Tampa International Airport shut down at 5 p.m.

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. 

NHL finals to go on

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.

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 Tuesday, officials said.

After Florida, forecasters predicted Elsa would hit coastal Georgia and South Carolina, portions of which were under a tropical storm watch.   



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