ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Tropical Storm Eta dumped torrents of blustery rain on Florida’s west coast as it marched over the Gulf of Mexico toward an expected landfall north of the heavily populated Tampa Bay area.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami predicted Eta would slog ashore sometime Thursday and then move northeast across Florida as it loses strength. Eta briefly gained hurricane strength Wednesday morning, but forecasters said it later weakened to tropical storm status with maximum winds of 70 mph (110 kph).
There were no immediate reports of any injuries, serious damage or flooding in the Tampa Bay area as the storm skirted past that region Wednesday afternoon. Several tornado warnings were issued, but there were no reports of one touching down.
“We don’t have any reports of flooding or street closures in Tampa at this point,” Mayor Jane Castor told reporters.
The storm had meandered in the Gulf of Mexico since crossing over South Florida on Sunday. At 1 a.m. Thursday, Eta was 65 miles (104 kilometers) north northwest of St. Petersburg, Florida, and moving northward at 10 mph (16 kph), the hurricane center reported. Eta had maximum winds of 60 mph (95 kph).
Slow weakening is expected as Eta approaches the west coast of Florida during the next few hours, followed by more rapid weakening after landfall occurs later Thursday. Eta is forecast to dissipate over the western Atlantic Ocean by the weekend.
The Tampa Bay region is home to more than 3.5 million people across five coastal counties. No mandatory evacuations were ordered, but authorities opened shelters for anyone needing them. Local media reported only a handful of people showed up.
The forecast prompted school officials in Pasco and Pinellas counties, which includes St. Petersburg, to send students home early Wednesday. Both counties announced schools would remain closed Thursday, while neighboring Hillsborough County planned to keep schools closed through Friday.
The Florida Highway Patrol closed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that links Pinellas and Manatee counties because of high winds. Tampa International Airport suspended operations Wednesday afternoon, with plans to reopen no later than noon Thursday.
Also in Tampa, the Busch Gardens theme park announced it was closed Wednesday, and several Veterans Day events in the area were canceled. A coronavirus testing site at Tropicana Field was also closed Wednesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an expanded emergency declaration to include 13 counties along or near the Gulf coast, adding them to South Florida counties. DeSantis also asked for an early emergency order from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to free resources needed to tackle the storm. President Donald Trump granted the request Wednesday evening.
The hurricane center said “life-threatening storm surge” was possible early Thursday, and forecasters advised residents to heed warnings from local officials.
The storm first hit Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane and killed at least 120 people in Central America and Mexico, with scores more missing. It then moved into the Gulf of Mexico early Monday near where the Everglades meet the sea.
Eta hit land late Sunday as it blew over Lower Matecumbe Key, in the middle of the chain of small islands that form the Florida Keys, but the heavily populated areas of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties bore the brunt of the fury with heavy rainfall.
It was the 28th named storm of a busy Atlantic hurricane season, tying the 2005 record for named storms. And late Monday, it was followed by the 29th storm, Theta, located far out in the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the Azores.