After landfall in Florida, the storm is forecast to move north across the southeast of the United States.
Tropical Storm Elsa is strengthening and could become a hurricane before making landfall along Florida’s northern Gulf coast, the Miami-based US National Hurricane Center warned on Tuesday.
In addition to damaging winds and heavy rains, Elsa could bring life-threatening storm surges, flooding and isolated tornadoes. A hurricane warning has been issued for a long stretch of coastline.
“Although the environment is not conducive for significant strengthening before landfall, only a slight increase in intensity would result in Elsa becoming a hurricane” Tuesday night or early Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.
The Tampa area is highly vulnerable to storm surge because the offshore waters and Tampa Bay are quite shallow, experts say.
Strong winds and rain slammed Key West on Tuesday morning and caused the streets to flood as the storm passed by offshore.
But on the barrier island beach towns along the Gulf Coast, it was largely business as usual with few shutters or plywood boards going up. Free sandbags were being handed out at several locations, and a limited number of storm shelters opened on Tuesday morning in at least four counties around the Tampa Bay area, although no evacuations have been ordered.
The storm has already complicated the search for survivors in the collapse of a Miami-area condominium 12 days ago.
Bands of rain were expected to reach Surfside on Florida’s Atlantic coast, soaking the rubble of the Champlain Towers South, which collapsed on June 24, killing at least 32 people. Search and rescue crews have worked through rain in search of more than 100 others listed as missing, but must pause when lightning threatens, and a garage area in the pancaked debris already filled with water on Monday, officials said.
Elsa’s maximum sustained winds stood at 112km/h (70mph) early on Tuesday. A slow strengthening is forecast through Tuesday night and Elsa could be at hurricane strength before it makes landfall in Florida. Its core was about 152 kilometres (95 miles) northwest of Key West, Florida, and 290 kilometres (180 miles) south of Tampa. It was continuing to move to the north-northwest at 16km/h (10mph), according to the National Hurricane Center.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis expanded a state of emergency to cover a dozen counties where Elsa was expected to make a swift passage on Wednesday.
Forecasters predicted Elsa would hit coastal Georgia and South Carolina after Florida. Georgia’s coast was under a tropical storm watch, as was much of the South Carolina coast. Forecasters said tornadoes could strike in the eastern Carolinas and Virginia as Elsa moves north.
The storm surge could reach 1.5 metres (five feet) over normally dry land in the Tampa Bay area if Elsa passes at high tide, forecasters said.
Tampa International Airport planned to shut down on Tuesday at 5pm.
Cuban officials evacuated 180,000 people on Sunday against the possibility of heavy flooding from a storm that already battered several Caribbean islands, killing at least three people.
The capital city of Havana awoke to overcast skies after a rainy night but no major flooding or damage on Tuesday. Cubans returned to the streets after authorities lifted a tropical storm warning, although heavy rains were set to continue in parts of the country.
Preliminary damage estimates were at more than $12m in St Lucia and $5.3m in Jamaica, according to government officials.
Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.