Elsa was downgraded to tropical storm status ahead of an expected landfall along Florida's Gulf Coast by Wednesday morning.
The storm Tuesday evening had reached the level of a Category 1 hurricane.
Elsa had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph as it moved north at 14 mph about 60 miles west of Tampa, according to the latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Elsa brought heavy rains and damaging wind to the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas as a tropical storm on Tuesday. A tropical storm warning for the Keys was lifted Tuesday night.
On the forecast track, Elsa will move near or over portions of the west coast of Florida Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. It is then forecast to make landfall along the north Florida Gulf Coast by late Wednesday morning and then move across the southeastern United States through Thursday.
In addition to damaging winds and heavy rains, the Hurricane Center warned of life-threatening storm surges, flooding and isolated tornadoes.
A hurricane warning was issued for a long stretch of coastline, from Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay to the Steinhatchee River in Florida's Big Bend area.
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The Tampa area is highly vulnerable to storm surge because the offshore waters and Tampa Bay are quite shallow, experts say.
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 Tuesday morning in at least four counties around the Tampa Bay area, although no evacuations have been ordered.
“We learned our lesson from Eta last year,” said Mark Amis, the owner of Tiki Bar and Grill. “It was just a tropical storm and that tropical storm brought us about five inches of water inside the building.”
"We're just doing what we can. We take everything that we can to the back, and just tighten everything,” said Ray Loflin, a worker at O'Maddy's Bar and Grille. “... It's not our first rodeo, we just kind of chain it all down and hope for the best."
"It's important that Floridians don't focus on the cone. Impacts are expected well outside that area," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a Tuesday morning news conference.
The storm surge could reach 5 feet 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 5 p.m.
“And if you look at how the storm is it’s incredibly lopsided to the east,” DeSantis said. “So most of the rainfall is going to be east of the center of the storm.”
Elsa’s westward shift spared the lower Florida Keys a direct hit, but the islands were still getting plenty of rain and wind Tuesday. Tropical storm warnings were posted for the Florida Keys from Craig Key westward to the Dry Tortugas and for the west coast of Florida from Flamingo northward to the Ochlockonee River.
Some residents in the Florida Keys said they were going to stay and ride the storm out.
“It wasn’t really organized, a lot of rain and wind but (I'm) not worried about it," said Key West resident Ryan Bennett.
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. But Elsa spent Sunday and much of Monday sweeping parallel to Cuba’s southern coast, sparing most of the island from significant effects.
Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.