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Tampa area in projected path as Elsa expected to regain hurricane status

By Alex Sosnowski, AccuWeather senior meteorologist

(From AccuWeather)

Final preparations were being rushed to completion across Florida and the Southeast Tuesday as Tropical Storm Elsa closed in on the Sunshine State, unleashing torrential rain and strong winds across the Florida Keys. AccuWeather forecasters say that the system will gradually strengthen over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico as it churns west of the state into early Wednesday morning, and Elsa is expected to regain hurricane status, with sustained winds of 74 mph or greater, prior to striking land.

Elsa is projected to make landfall north of Tampa early Wednesday, and it has been rated a 1 on the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes, due to the system’s expected rainfall, storm surge flooding and the potential for damaging winds.

“Whether Elsa hits as a low-end Category 1 hurricane or as a strong tropical storm, there may be little difference with impacts,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Jake Sojda said, adding that slow strengthening is possible rather than another round of rapid intensification.

Tropical Storm Elsa was located about 180 miles south of Tampa, Florida, at 1:45 p.m. EDT Tuesday, with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph. It was moving toward the north-northwest at 10 mph.

hurricane warning was issued Tuesday afternoon for Egmont Key to the Steinhatchee River inlet along the western coast of Florida. A tropical storm warning was in effect for the Florida Keys, and along the west coast of Florida from Flamingo to Ochlockonee River. Storm surge warnings were plastered up and down Florida’s west coast.

“Satellite and radar images revealed that Elsa is a very lopsided tropical storm on Tuesday with the majority of heavy rain, thunderstorms and gusty winds on the system’s eastern side, which happens to be over Florida,” AccuWeather Chief On-Air Meteorologist Bernie Rayno said.

(From AccuWeather)

Portions of the Florida Keys were being hammered by heavy rain and gusty winds during Tuesday morning, and these tumultuous conditions were expected to continue into the evening hours.

Into Wednesday, a large portion of the Florida Peninsula will be at risk for rounds of torrential rain, flooding in low-lying areas, damaging wind gusts, power outages and isolated tornadoes and waterspouts.

There may be little advance warning of tornadoes in this case as they will tend to spin up and dissipate in a matter of a few minutes within some of the spiral bands on the storm’s eastern side. In some cases, tornadoes could be wrapped in rain and difficult to spot.

In anticipation of adverse conditions due to Elsa, commercial operations at Tampa International Airport will be suspended at 5 p.m. Tuesday, according to officials. The airport is expected to reopen at 10 a.m. Wednesday, depending on weather conditions.

AccuWeather is projecting the center of Elsa to pass just west of Tampa Tuesday night, but heavy rain, flooding, gusty winds, power outages and the risk of severe thunderstorms are forecast for the Tampa metropolitan area, which is home to about 3.2 million people.

“Tampa’s going to get hit pretty hard,” Rayno said. Several inches of rain will pour down in the area as southwest winds will lead to inundation and flooding around Tampa Bay and near some inlets.

During Wednesday morning, Elsa is forecast to make landfall near Cedar Key, Florida, which is located along the upper Gulf Coast of the Florida Peninsula.

The projected track and the circulation around the storm as it moves along will cause southwesterly winds to push Gulf of Mexico water into Tampa Bay and from Tampa Bay to near Cedar Key. In these areas, a storm surge of 3-6 feet is forecast with locally higher levels possible.

Steady forward motion should limit rainfall from Elsa over Florida. However, a swath of 4-8 inches of rain is anticipated over the western half of the Florida Peninsula with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 15 inches. Since much of this rain may fall over several hours, flooding of streets, highways and low-lying areas is likely.

Even though the center of Elsa is forecast to pass west of central Florida, strong winds gusts, mainly within squalls can lead to sporadic power outages and minor property damage over a large part of the peninsula.

Wind gusts of 60-80 mph are expected for portions of the Big Bend in Florida, directly southeast of the center of circulation, as Elsa approaches and makes landfall early Wednesday. An AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 100 mph is forecast for Florida.

Periodic downpours and gusty thunderstorms along the Florida Atlantic coast are also expected. These can disrupt recovery operations at the site of a deadly building collapse in Surfside, Florida, last week.

After Elsa moves inland over northern Florida, it will take a track just inland of the Atlantic coast across southeastern Georgia later Wednesday and the Carolinas during Wednesday night and Thursday, enough rain is forecast to fall to lead to flash flooding, and gusty winds can also trigger sporadic power outages.

Near and just southeast of the tropical cyclone’s center, the risk of isolated tornadoes and waterspouts are forecast to continue as it moves inland over the Southeastern states. The system is expected to lose some wind intensity while over land and it is expected to be downgraded to a tropical depression over Georgia or the Carolinas.

Since the system is not expected to wander very far inland, it is likely to retain many tropical characteristics and its circulation. The heavy rain will shift northwestward, relative to Elsa’s circulation, after the storm makes landfall, and thus it should not appear as lopsided once it is over land.

Elsa is predicted to emerge off the mid-Atlantic coast and pick up forward speed later Thursday into Friday. It is expected to regain tropical-storm force for a time, and its projected track will allow impacts to continue along the Northeast coastline.