A storm that has lashed the Caribbean and the Florida Keys with pounding rain and gusty winds has strengthened into a hurricane as it hurtles toward Florida’s northern Gulf coast, weather officials said on Tuesday.
The National Weather Service said that Hurricane Elsa was packing winds as high as 75mph (121kph). The category 1 storm is expected to make landfall between 8am and 9am on Wednesday, somewhere between the Tampa Bay area and the Big Bend region.
The storm has been complicating the search for survivors in a collapsed condo in Surfside, near Miami, where rescuers are working to recover victims from the rubble. The death toll stands at 36.
In addition to damaging winds and heavy rains, the Miami-based US National Hurricane Center warned of life-threatening storm surges, flooding and isolated tornadoes.
The Tampa area is highly vulnerable to storm surge because the offshore waters and Tampa Bay are quite shallow, experts say. The state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, said the area would take a hard hit from the storm overnight.
Now is “not a time to joyride” because “we do have hazardous conditions out there,” DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday.
Bands of rain were expected to reach Surfside on the Atlantic coast, soaking the rubble of the Champlain Towers South, which collapsed on 24 June. Search and rescue crews have worked through rain but must pause when lightning threatens. A garage area filled with water on Monday.
The forecast included the possibility of tornadoes across south Florida on Tuesday morning and across the upper peninsula later in the day.
DeSantis expanded a state of emergency to cover a dozen counties where Elsa was expected to make a swift passage on Wednesday, and Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state ahead of the storm.
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 5ft over normally dry land in the Tampa Bay area if Elsa passes at high tide, forecasters said. Commander Col Ben Jonsson said only essential personnel were being allowed Tuesday morning on MacDill air force base, which is located along the bay on the South Tampa peninsula. Tampa international airport planned to shut down Tuesday at 5pm.
Elsa’s westward shift spared the lower Florida Keys a direct hit but the islands were still getting plenty of rain and wind.
Cuban officials evacuated 180,000 people against the possibility of heavy flooding from a storm that 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 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 10in with isolated maximums of 15in, resulting in significant flash flooding and mudslides. But there were no early reports of serious damage on the island.
Elsa was the first hurricane of the Atlantic season until Saturday and caused widespread damage on several eastern Caribbean islands. As a tropical storm, it resulted in the deaths of one person on St Lucia and of a 15-year-old boy and a 75-year-old woman in the Dominican Republic.
Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.