Tropical Storm Elsa was making landfall in north Florida's Gulf Coast late Wednesday morning, battering the area with heavy rain, knocking out power and threatening more wind damage and flooding as it moves inland.
Elsa's center, with sustained winds of 65 mph, was hitting Taylor County in Florida's Big Bend region at around 11 a.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said.
Having already caused flooding in west-central Florida, Elsa is on a path to pound northern Florida and parts of Georgia into Thursday evening, then eventually the Carolinas and the mid-Atlantic coast.
A few dozen miles from landfall, part of the roof's surface had been lifted from a motel on Florida's Cedar Key, photos taken by motel guest Jonathan Riches showed.
"Winds starting howling in the middle of the night, and rain starting pounding the windows," Riches told CNN, adding about the conditions: "Never seen anything like this before in my life."
High winds in already-saturated areas of northern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina could topple trees and power lines.
"We've had a lot of rainfall this past month. If you get winds at 40 mph or 50 mph, some of these trees are going to be falling down," CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said Wednesday morning.
"There's a lot more damage still to be done."
More than 20,000 utility customers in Florida were without power early Wednesday afternoon, according to utility tracker PowerOutage.us.
Flooding was happening Wednesday morning in parts of southwestern Florida, where Elsa's outer bands still were dropping rain. This included the Fort Myers area, where high water made some roads impassable, the National Weather Service said.
The system weakened to a tropical storm early Wednesday after becoming a Category 1 hurricane Tuesday. More than 5 million people are under a tropical storm warning across parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Elsa will have generally dropped 3 to 9 inches of rain in of western and northern Florida by storm's end -- though up to 12 inches had fallen north of Port Charlotte by Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service said.
Counties and utilities prepare ahead of storm
As Elsa approached, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry urged residents to be cautious, since flooding and wind damage were possible.
"We don't want people to get overconfident" and drive into any flooding or miss any downed power lines, Curry told CNN Wednesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded his state of emergency declaration Tuesday to include 33 counties as local, state and utility resources prepared for the storm.
The Florida National Guard has activated 60 guardsmen and is prepared to activate more for storm-related operations such as high-water rescues or humanitarian assistance, it said.
Shelters were opened in at least five counties Tuesday, and two counties issued voluntary evacuation orders.
Duke Energy, which serves 1.8 million customers in Florida, was preparing for outages, according to its website.
It had staged 3,000 utility "crew members, contractors, tree specialists and other personnel" from Pinellas County to north Florida, the utility said Tuesday in a news release. Additional line workers and support personnel were also brought in from the Carolinas, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, according to the release.
The University of Florida in Gainesville canceled classes for Wednesday in anticipation of the storm, the university said.
Heading to Georgia and the Carolinas -- then up the East Coast
Elsa's center could maintain tropical storm strength into Wednesday evening, when it is expected to be in southern or middle Georgia, forecasters said.
Elsa could weaken to a tropical depression by Thursday morning, when it is due to be over South Carolina.
It then eventually will skirt along the mid-Atlantic coast -- and maybe even restrengthen into a tropical storm in the Northeast by Friday morning, the hurricane center said.
About 2 to 6 inches of rain are expected in portions of southeastern Georgia and the lowlands of South Carolina, with considerable flash flooding possible, the hurricane center said.
Roughly 1 to 5 inches of rain are possible in coastal portions of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia through Thursday night, according to the hurricane center.
Crews work in Surfside; boat capsizes off Key West
Though Elsa's most intense effects are being felt in western Florida, outer bands also sent rain and winds to parts of the state's eastern side.
In the southeastern Florida community of Surfside, crews intended to continue a search and rescue operation at the site of a deadly condo collapse unless wind gusts rose above 45 mph, a fire rescue spokesperson said.
Elsa also lashed the Florida Keys on Tuesday. After the storm passed, the Coast Guard was told people needed rescuing in the water more than 20 miles off Key West. By Wednesday, the service still was searching for nine people in the water after 13 had been rescued, it said.
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