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Elsa strengthens to hurricane as it approaches Florida coast

Elsa strengthened into a hurricane Tuesday night as it barreled up Florida’s west coast, threatening heavy rain, flooding and high winds.

The storm intensified from a tropical storm into a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph by 7:45 p.m., the National Hurricane Center said. Its center was around 100 miles south-southwest of Tampa.

The hurricane is expected to approach Florida’s northern Gulf coast overnight and make landfall Wednesday morning, the hurricane center said. But its effects will stretch far from the actual center of the storm.

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“It really is about all those impacts well away from the storm, as well as inside the storm,” Ken Graham, director of the hurricane center, said late Tuesday afternoon.

Hurricane warnings were in effect from Tampa Bay all the way north to the Steinhatchee River in the state’s Big Bend region. A Category 1 hurricane is strong enough to topple trees, send streets signs flying and damage unanchored mobile homes.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded a state of emergency to include more counties Tuesday. Tampa International Airport suspended all commercial operations at 5 p.m. due to the storm with plans to resume Wednesday morning. Power company Duke Energy said it called in crews from out of state.

Many people in vulnerable Gulf Coast counties like Pasco, Hernando and Citrus, which are home to lots of retirees from the north, live in mobile homes.

Farther south, Pinellas and Hillsborough county officials were breaking out the sandbags as residents in flood-prone sections of St. Petersburg and Tampa braced for storm surges of 2 to 4 feet. And by 3:30 p.m., there were already nearly 2,000 reports of power outages, according to The Tampa Bay Times.

Hurricane watches for the western coast of Florida during the month of July are rare. Going back to 2008, there is no other instance of the National Weather Service in Tampa Bay issuing a hurricane watch in July.

By sunrise Tuesday, Elsa was battering the Florida Keys with tropical storm-force winds and torrential rainfall. Some of the highest wind gusts clocked included 62 mph in Key West and 64 mph in Sand Key.

By midmorning, Elsa was a 60-mph tropical storm and showing signs of strengthening as it passed just west of Key West.

A tropical storm watch was also added Tuesday morning for portions of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, including Savannah and Charleston.

Storm surge warnings remained in effect for parts of the Florida coast, including Tampa Bay.

After making landfall, Elsa is expected to weaken as it moves inland but will bring strong winds and heavy rain to parts of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

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Peak storm surge was forecast to be 3 to 5 feet above normally dry ground, including Tampa Bay. Elsewhere up and down the west coast of Florida, 1 to 3 feet to 2 to 4 feet were also possible.

Four to 6 inches of rainfall was expected to drench a wide swath of the region stretching across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, with as much as 8 inches of rain possible in some isolated areas.

Parts of North Carolina and Virginia could also get up to 5 inches of rain, forecasters said.

And flood watches had already issued through Thursday ahead of the downpour for the 12 million people who live in the areas most likely to be deluged.

Tornadoes were also possible across nearly the entire state of Florida on Tuesday associated with Elsa.

A meteorological coincidence: The last tropical storm to make landfall on the west coast of Florida was Eta last November. Elsa is following a similar track and also starts with the letter E.

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