By CURT ANDERSON for the Associated Press
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Elsa weakened to a tropical storm as it threatened Florida’s northern Gulf Coast on Wednesday after raking past the Tampa Bay region with gusty winds and heavy rain.
The storm was moving northward, almost parallel to the west coast of the state, according to forecasters.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said forecasts called for the cyclone to come ashore sometime between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. A tropical storm warning was in effect for a long stretch of coastline, from Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay to the Steinhatchee River.
“We ask that you please take it seriously,” the Republican governor told reporters Tuesday in Tallahassee. “This is not a time to joyride because we do have hazardous conditions out there.”
There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries in the Tampa Bay area, which is highly vulnerable to storm surge. The most powerful winds were forecast to remain just offshore from the beach towns west of St. Petersburg.
Elsa’s maximum sustained winds stood at 65 mph (100 kph) early Wednesday. Its core was about 50 miles (75 kilometers) south southwest of Cedar Key. It was moving north at 14 mph (22 kmh), according to the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters said Elsa would slice across inland north Florida as a tropical storm with strong rains and wind, then move on to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia before heading out in the Atlantic Ocean by Friday.
Schools and government offices in the Tampa area were closed and most public events postponed as Elsa approached Tuesday. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, however, predicted hockey’s Stanley Cup finals game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens would be played as scheduled Wednesday night.
“We’re fairly confident,” she said.
Tampa International Airport suspended operations at 5 p.m. Tuesday and planned to resume flights at 10 a.m. Wednesday following a check for any storm damage, according to its website.
Duke Energy, the main electric utility in the Tampa Bay area, said in a statement it had about 3,000 employees, contractors, tree specialists and support personnel ready to respond to power outages in the storm’s aftermath. Additional crews were being brought in from other states served by Duke.
“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.
Earlier Tuesday, Elsa swept past the Florida Keys but spared the low-lying island chain a direct hit. Still, there were heavy rains predicted in the Keys through Wednesday, along with strong winds.
The storm also complicated the search for potential survivors and victims in the collapse of a Miami-area condominium on June 24. Despite that challenge, crews continued the search in the rubble of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, on the state’s southeast coast.
In Georgia, a tropical storm warning was posted along the portion of the coast of Brunswick, with the National Hurricane Center saying tropical storm conditions with sustained winds of up to 50 mph (80 kph) are expected in parts of southeast Georgia.
“Right now, we’re basically looking at a cloudy, rainy and windy day,” Glynn County Emergency Management Agency Director Alec Eaton told the Brunswick News on Tuesday. “I feel confident we can sit down and let it pass over us without any major impacts. Hopefully.”
To the north in South Carolina, emergency officials were watching Elsa, but no evacuations were ordered during the peak summer beach tourism season.
The storm was expected to track inland, but coastal forecasters noted the worst weather was on the east side of the storm and could dump up to 5 inches (13 centimeters) of rain and bring wind gusts up to 55 mph (88 kph) in places like Hilton Head Island, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
Earlier, 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.
Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.
Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Atlanta and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina contributed to this story.
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