Tropical storm Elsa was upgraded to a hurricane on Tuesday night for several hours as heavy rains and high winds battered Florida Keys and southwest areas and caused power outages in hundreds of homes.
The storm is expected to barrel through the entire East Coast, making landfall over the northern Florida Gulf Coast on Wednesday morning.
The hurricane warning was downgraded to a tropical storm, several hours after the National Hurricane Centre said “hurricane conditions are expected tonight and early Wednesday.”
"Hurricane conditions are expected tonight and early Wednesday along a portion of the west coast of Florida, where a Hurricane Warning is in effect," the National Hurricane Centre said in an 11 pm advisory before downgrading Elsa to a storm.
"Tropical storm conditions are occurring across portions southwest Florida and will continue to spread northward along the west coast of the state within the warning area through Wednesday morning."
The existing state of emergency was expanded to 33 counties on Tuesday from 15 previously and hurricane warnings are in place for seven, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said.
Tampa airport suspended commercial flights from 5pm Tuesday till 10 am Wednesday as Elsa raked past the Tampa Bay region with gushing winds and heavy rain.
Visuals from the affected areas show beachgoers running away from the shore with their belongings after strong winds and gusty rains lashed the Clearwater beach area in Florida.
The storm was centred about 65 miles southwest of Tampa with sustained winds of 75 mph, according to 11pm warning from NHC. It was moving north at 14 mph towards Cedar Key in the Big Bend area where it is expected to make landfall.
While there were no immediate reports of damage in the Tampa Bay area, 15 people were rescued from the coast of Key West and nine people still remain missing, US Coast Guard said on Twitter.
The most powerful storm surge was forecasted to remain just offshore from the beach towns west of St Petersburg.
Elsa was Category 1 hurricane on Friday before it weakened into a tropical storm and ravaged Cuba and much of the Caribbean before it regained its strength. It is the first hurricane of the Atlantic season to hit the sunshine city.
More than 1700 personnel were prepared to respond to the 1500 power outages reported across the state, Mr DeSantis said.
Elsa is expected to move past North Florida as a tropical storm dumping rains and high winds, spinning across Georgia the Carolinas and Virginia. It will head to the Atlantic Ocean by Friday.
As search operation continued at the site of the fallen building in Miami-Dade county, the storm complicated the rescue mission as potential victims remain under the rubble. Even as Mr DeSantis removed the county from the emergency list, the effects of the storm were seen in the area with rains and winds along with lightning on late Monday and work was suspended briefly.
Tornado watch warnings have also been issued for more than 12.9 million people in southern Florida till Tuesday night, in areas including Tampa, Fort Myers, Miami, Surfside, St Petersburg and Sarasota.
Storm Elsa has already claimed three lives in Caribbean islands and at least 180,000 were evacuated in Cuba as heavy rains led to flash flooding. Roofs of houses were ripped off in the forceful winds in the Barbados.
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