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Video: Hurricane watch issued for parts of Florida’s west coast as Elsa moves into the Gulf

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Ahead of Elsa’s arrival, and the potential for strong winds and high waters, 8 On Your Side has a hurricane guide for Tampa Bay residents.

The Clearwater Police Department announced that the Memorial Causeway will be restricted starting at 6 p.m. as “weather conditions are expected to begin deteriorating.”

As of July 5, U.S. President Joe Biden has approved an emergency declaration for Florida ahead of Tropical Storm Elsa’s arrival, and the 8 On Your Side Weather Team is keeping an eye on the storm as it progresses. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Tampa Bay on Saturday.

Airports and flights

Tampa International Airport will suspend flights at 5 p.m. Tuesday evening ahead of the storm.

“Due to the latest forecast of Tropical Storm Elsa, which includes wind speeds of up to 65 to 70 miles per hour, Tampa International Airport will be suspending commercial operations at 5 p.m. tonight and suspending air cargo operations by 10 p.m.,” a press release for the airport states.

Typically, TPA says they limit their shuttles and other operations once winds being to stay at 40 mph, and if wind speeds reach 50 mph, they’ll “cease all operations.” Individual airlines make their own decisions on when to ground or divert their aircraft.

A TPA spokesperson says that in addition to strong winds, lightning and tornado warnings can also factor into ground stops. They advise travelers to check with their airlines to get the most up-to-date information for flight delays or cancellations as Elsa approaches. Airside at TPA is expected to reopen at 10 a.m. on June 7.

Further south, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, SRQ, will close at 6:30 p.m. after the last commercial flight lands in response to TS Elsa.

SRQ is “preparing the airport for a strong wind and rain event” and are taking steps to prevent or minimize damage from flying debris during the storm.

A spokesperson for St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport says the tenants at the airport will be the ones responsible for any closures or delays due to the weather and advised travelers to check with their airlines about the status of their flights. Still, the representative said that they were not expecting any major delays at this point, but would continue to check for changes in status heading into Tuesday.

The Sarasota Bradenton International Airport will close at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday after the last commercial arrival scheduled at 5:30 p.m.. The airport will reopen Wednesday morning at 6 a.m.

The most up-to-date flight information is still maintained on their website, but passengers are encouraged to contact their airline directly if they need future flight status information.

SRQ says it is important to know that the terminal building is not a storm shelter.

Pinellas County preparations

At a news conference, Pinellas County administrators announced that due to significant storms, and an expected storm surge of three to five feet, residents were urged to seek shelter.

“Our emergency response crews cannot respond once the wind conditions reach 40 miles per hour,” said Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton. He said county government buildings and parks will close at 2 p.m. and remain closed through Wednesday. Sandbag operations continue. County administrators said only two county-operated shelters are open.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said all beaches from “Dunedin all the way south to Pass-a-Grille and St. Pete Beach” will be restricted access starting at 6 p.m. and deputies will be on site with high-water rescue vehicles and shallow watercraft to effect rescues.

A mandatory evacuation has not yet been ordered, and all evacuations are currently voluntary.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is offering free rides to the Lealman Exchange and Ross Norton Recreation shelters starting at 9 a.m.

Bridges and buses

The first thing to know is that the Florida Department of Transportation, and local officials, have a plan for keeping drivers safe during the storm.

Tampa city officials told 8 On Your Side at about 4:20 p.m. (July 6), “Bridge power has been cut as a precautionary measure. Platt, Brorein, Cass and Laurel bridges will all be open to vehicular traffic.”

Locally, PSTA will remain open until 3:30 p.m. due to strong winds. A previous announcement said the buses would remain in operation unless wind speeds reached 40 mph or higher. All PSTA terminals will close, this includes Park Street, Grand Central Station and Pinellas Park. Services is expected to resume once the storm passes.

The only major bridge in the area that could close from strong winds is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. FDOT officials say its height is the biggest factor. If winds hit speeds of 40 mph or more, “the extreme height of it at the top” makes it necessary to temporarily close during a tropical storm or hurricane.

The other bridges in the area won’t close down unless there is debris or the Florida Highway Patrol physically blocks one during a storm. Drawbridges may close for marine operation, but FDOT says that’ll happen “within 12 hours of expected tropical storm winds.”

Unless local law enforcement thinks it’s necessary, FDOT will not close drawbridges to traffic, according to a Department spokesperson.

Still, with the weather getting heavy, FDOT gave a few tips for drivers to check for traffic changes:

  • Motorists download and monitor the FL511.com app for real-time traffic information.
  • Fill your gas tank/ fully charge your electric vehicle and stock your vehicle with emergency supplies.
  • Make certain your car’s emergency supply kit is stocked with a first aid kit, flashlights, extra batteries, jumper

Bridges aren’t the only things that may shut down in extreme weather, though.

In the City of Tampa, movable bridges operated by the city will not be running after wind speeds rise to 35 mph or higher. The bridges will stay in the down position, and the city’s bridge crew will monitor storm progress.

City officials tell 8 On Your Side that power will be removed from the drawbridges ahead of the storm surge that could impact electrical components.

“It’s is expected that, in the case of TS Elsa, power will be cut to the draw bridges by around 3 p.m. on Tuesday, July 6th,” said Scott Keith, Tampa’s Transportation Operations Chief, Mobility Department.

The U.S. Coast Guard will make a final call on restricting marine activity and the associated bridge operations, according to city officials.

Port Conditions

Coast Guard sets Port Condition Zulu
(Courtesy: USCG)

Currently, USCG has set warning levels at Port Condition Zulu, meaning all vessels are blocked from moving due to safety risks.

Setting the port status to Zulu means the Coast Guard for District 7, headquartered in St. Petersburg, expects sustained strong winds from Elsa, with speeds of 35-43 mph, and that those winds will sweep into Tampa Bay within 12 hours.

The USCG says to be aware of coastal flooding and to stay clear of beaches and evacuate, as necessary. No ships are entering or moving in the ports in our area without explicit permission of the Coast Guard Captain of the Port.

All mariners are reminded that facilities have “no safe havens” and that ports are safest when the number of vessels present is at a minimum. No vessels can enter a port or travel within one without the permission of the Coast Guard Captain of the Port during a Zulu event.

All waterfront operations are suspended except for final preparations for safety of ports and facilities.