Tropical Storm Elsa hitting Florida's west coast with heavy rain and dangerous gusts as it nears landfall

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    (CNN) -- Tropical Storm Elsa is battering western Florida with heavy rain and strong gusts as it approaches landfall at its northern Gulf Coast, threatening coastal flooding, wind damage and power outages across much of the state.

Elsa's center, with sustained winds of 65 mph, was about 50 miles south-southwest of Cedar Key on Florida's northwest coast as of about 5 a.m. ET.


It was moving north toward the Big Bend region, where it is expected to make landfall Wednesday morning, National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham told CNN.

Besides heavy rain and flooding, Elsa threatens strong winds that could topple trees and power lines in a region that's already saturated.

"The issue is that (even after landfall), this is going to continue to move" inland toward communities in northern Florida and southern Georgia with winds still at 40 mph, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said Wednesday morning.

"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," Myers said.

Because gusts of hurricane strength still are possible, a hurricane warning is in place Wednesday morning for Florida's west coast from Chassahowitzka (some 60 miles north of Tampa) north to southern Taylor County in Florida's Big Bend region.

With Elsa having passed the Tampa-St. Petersburg area overnight, some minor street flooding was seen around Clearwater, but no significant flooding was immediately seen in Tampa, CNN crews said.

The system weakened to a tropical storm early Wednesday after becoming a Category 1 hurricane Tuesday. More than 13 million people are under a tropical storm warning across parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Elsa is expected to have dropped 3 to 9 inches of rain across parts of western and northern Florida by storm's end, the National Hurricane Center said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded his state of emergency declaration Tuesday to include 33 counties as local, state and utility resources continue to prepare for the incoming 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.

Counties and utilities prepare ahead of storm

Ahead of the storm, Tampa officials encouraged residents Tuesday to stay home and get ready.

"We are prepared here in the city of Tampa, but we need you to do your part as well," Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a video posted to Twitter. "Don't go outside tonight. If you don't have to, do not go outside. Stay in."

"We want everybody to be safe in Tampa and we'll be up all night monitoring the storm so you don't have to," she added.

Tampa's emergency coordinator earlier said it was time for residents to get to safety.

"Now is the time to get back home, get off the streets and stay safe for the rest of tonight," John Antapasis said. "You should be making and finalizing your hurricane plans and ensuring that you're in a safe location while ... Elsa makes its way throughout community."

People who needed to be on the roads should check the city's flood map, Antapasis advised.

"Please finalize your plans and secure your homes and get ready to sort of bunker down and ride out this storm," Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said in a Tuesday news conference.

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 anticipated 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 in a statement.

Elsa due to head to Georgia and South Carolina

Ahead of Elsa's landfall in Florida, tropical storm warnings were issued for parts of Georgia and South Carolina, and a tropical storm watch was issued for portions of North Carolina and Virginia.

After coming ashore in Florida, Elsa's center is expected to head into Georgia on Wednesday and South Carolina by Thursday, then eventually move into the mid-Atlantic coast.

About 2 to 6 inches of rain are expected in portions of southeastern Georgia and the lowlands of South Carolina, 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.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency Tuesday for 91 of his state's 159 counties in preparation for Elsa.

"This storm system has the potential to produce destructive impacts to citizens throughout the central, southern, and coastal regions of the state of Georgia and due to the possibility of downed trees, power lines, and debris, Georgia's network of roads may be rendered impassable in the affected counties, isolating residences and persons from access to essential public services," Kemp said.

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