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Tropical Storm Elsa expected to become hurricane before Florida landfall

Tropical Storm Elsa 5 a.m. Wednesday

Elsa, which weakened to a tropical storm once again, is spreading across western Florida Wednesday morning and is expected to make landfall sometime during the day, the National Hurricane Center said in its 5 a.m. update.

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Tropical Storm Elsa has maximum sustained winds of 65 mph, and is 50 miles south-southwest of Cedar Key and 70 miles west-northwest of Tampa while moving north at 14 mph.

Tropical-storm-force winds extended 90 miles from Elsa’s center.

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Despite Elsa’s early morning weakening, Florida’s west coast remains under a Hurricane Warning due to there being a chance the storm could re-intensify before landfall, the NHC said.

Elsa is expected to glide north along Florida’s west coast throughout the morning and may cut into the peninsula either in the late morning or Wednesday afternoon, the NHC said. It’s later forecast to pass over the southeastern and mid-Atlantic United States Thursday.

New tornado watches were issued for almost all counties in the central part of the state, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic, with the exception of Brevard County. The watches in Central Florida are until 8 a.m. on Wednesday.

“A few tornadoes are possible overnight across the western and central Florida Peninsula,” the NHC said. “The tornado threat will continue on Wednesday across north Florida, southeast Georgia, and eastern South Carolina.”

Already the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for LaBelle in Hendry County on Tuesday afternoon after radar indicated a likely tornado.

Central Florida is also on Flood Watch until 4 p.m. the NWS said.

Elsa became the first hurricane of the season when it strengthened Friday, but dropped back down to tropical storm status by Saturday when it interacted with Hispaniola. But, back out at sea, the system strengthened and briefly regained hurricane status Tuesday night.

The hurricane center issued a Hurricane Warning from Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay to the Steinhatchee River in Florida’s Big Bend area on Tuesday afternoon. An inland Tropical Storm watch for Lake County was discontinued on Tuesday night, but Sumter and Marion counties are still under a Tropical Storm Warning.

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“Regardless of whether it stays a strong tropical storm or becomes a hurricane, the impacts are going to remain the same for most of east-central Florida,” said Spectrum News 13 meteorologist Chris Gilson. “With that tornado risk for all of east-central Florida, whether you’re on the east coast, the west coast, tornado risk is going to be there for everyone. Also looking at that heavy rain risk that could lead to some localized flooding.”

Gilson said to expect between 2-4 inches along the I-4 corridor with 3-5 inches or more in Lake, Sumter and Marion counties.

“We’re really looking at most of the impact from about sunset this evening to sunrise tomorrow,” Gilson said. “It looks like Elsa is going to make landfall potentially in the Nature Coast area between about 6 and 9 o’clock in the morning. So we’re going to see the greatest impacts for the heaviest downpours, that tornado risk will be the highest tonight into early Wednesday — the first half of Wednesday.”

The hurricane season’s fifth named storm has slowed its forward progress as it rides Florida’s west coast Tuesday. Elsa is projected to make landfall near Cedar Key north of Tampa area by mid-morning Wednesday. As of now, Elsa’s center would pass west and slightly north of Central Florida. The National Weather Service though is forecasting 20-30 mph winds with gusts to 40 mph for parts of Central Florida with gusts up to 60 mph that could occur in some squalls.

Power outages were appearing along Florida’s west coast on Tuesday, but by 6 p.m. only about 5,000 residences were without power in Florida, according to poweroutage.us.

Gov. Ron DeSantis urged Floridians in the projected path of Elsa to take heed of local evacuation orders, stay off the roads and be mindful of how they set up generators if there’s a power outage in the aftermath of the storm. There are 33 counties under a state of emergency, ranging from southwest Florida northeast through the peninsula.

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DeSantis expressed hope few travelers will be on the roads as Elsa made its way through the state, but also stressed that motorists should stay inside.

“The roads will be dangerous as this storm passes through,” DeSantis said during a briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee Tuesday evening. “This is not a time to joyride. You do have hazardous conditions out there.”

DeSantis said President Joe Biden has approved his request for a federal pre-landfall emergency declaration.

Pedestrians dash across the intersection of Greene and Duval streets as heavy winds and rain associated with Tropical Storm Elsa passes Key West, Fla., on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. The weather was getting worse in southern Florida on Tuesday morning as Tropical Storm Elsa began lashing the Florida Keys, complicating the search for survivors in the condo collapse and prompting a hurricane watch for the peninsula's upper Gulf Coast. (Rob O'Neal/The Key West Citizen via AP)

“They’ve been great, they acted on that very quickly,” DeSantis said of the federal government’s response.

Division of Emergency Management director Kevin Guthrie encouraged residents to photograph any damage to their home after Elsa passes.

“I would remind people that if they wake up in the morning and they start to have damage and can see damage, the best thing you can do as a homeowner is to go out and photograph that damage,” Guthrie said. “Make sure you take pictures before you start cleaning up, especially if you have any type of flooding.”

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DeSantis also said some of the state’s search and rescue teams are ready to deploy to help residents in the wake of Elsa. Most of those teams had been engaged in the rescue efforts at the Surfside building collapse in recent weeks.

Guthrie earlier Tuesday said about 6,000 utility workers and 200 Florida National Guardsmen are on standby for quick deployment should they be needed. The majority of the workers and guardsmen are stationed in Orlando pushing out commodities in warehouses, Guthrie said.

While Elsa is expected to gain strength prior to landfall, it should begin weakening Wednesday once its eye is over Florida.

During a Tuesday morning press conference, DeSantis urged residents to make preparations as Elsa bears down on the west. The governor did not anticipate any widespread evacuation, but did acknowledge that northern areas of Florida were as risk to flash flooding after receiving heavy rainfall days over the weekend and last week.

“It’s important that Floridians don’t focus on the cone,” DeSantis said. “Impacts are expected well outside that area, and if you look at how the storm is, it’s incredibly lopsided to the east.”

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A Tropical Storm Warning remains in effect for Florida’s west coast from Flamingo in the Everglades northward to south of Egmont Key, and then farther north on the west coast from north of Steinhatchee River to Ochlockonee River. The NHC also issued a Tropical Storm Warning for the coast of Georgia from the Mouth of the St. Mary’s River to Altamaha Sound.

A Storm Surge Warning was in effect for Florida’s west coast from Bonita Beach to the Aucilla River, including Tampa Bay.

“A turn toward the north-northeast is expected on Wednesday, followed by a faster northeastward motion by late Thursday,” the NHC said.

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Spectrum News 13 meteorologist Maureen McCann noted that even though most of Central Florida is outside of Elsa’s projected path, the region could still feel impact from the storm.

“Remember that impacts can happen outside the cone of uncertainty,” she said. “With Central Florida being on the right side of the storm, we will see batches of rain, some gusty squalls and even some isolated tornadoes with some of the more intense pockets of rain.”

Lake, Sumter and Marion counties still have the most probability of feeling tropical-storm-force winds.

Rain of 3-5 inches with localized totals up to 8 inches through Wednesday was expected in the Keys, southwest Florida and the Panhandle, NHC forecasters said. The rest of the state could experience 2-4 inches and up to 6 inches in some localized areas.

“Much of north and central Florida have experienced above normal rainfall over the past two weeks, which will increase the likelihood of flash flooding conditions with the anticipated heavy rain,” DeSantis said.

The was no change to Elsa’s project path, which has it moving parallel to Florida’s west coast before making landfall north of Tampa in the Big Bend area or the Panhandle on Wednesday.

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Cuban officials evacuated 180,000 people against the possibility of heavy flooding from a storm that already battered several Caribbean islands, killing at least three people. But Elsa spent Sunday and much of Monday sweeping parallel to Cuba’s southern coast, sparing most of the island from significant effects.

It made landfall in Cuba near Cienega de Zapata, a natural park with few inhabitants, and crossed the island just east of Havana. Tuesday’s rainfall across parts of Cuba was expected to reach 10 inches with isolated maximums of 15 inches, resulting in significant flash flooding and mudslides. But there were no early reports of serious damage on the island.

“The wind is blowing hard and there is a lot of rain. Some water is getting under the door of my house. In the yard the level is high, but it did not get into the house,” Lázaro Ramón Sosa, a craftsman and photographer who lives in the town of Cienega de Zapata, told The Associated Press by telephone.

Sosa said he saw some avocado trees fall nearby.

Tropical storm conditions were continuing over central and western Cuba Tuesday morning, even as the storm reached Florida.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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