ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Tropical Storm Eta dumped torrents of blustery rain on Florida’s west coast as it moved over Florida after making landfall north of the heavily populated Tampa Bay area Thursday morning.
The storm slogged ashore near Cedar Key, Florida, with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph). The National Hurricane Center in Miami predicted Eta would 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.
In Bradenton Beach, Mark Mixon stepped into his flooded garage as he was laying sandbags around his home on Wednesday evening and was electrocuted, said Jacob Saur, director of public safety for Manatee County. There were appliances plugged into the garage and when Mixon stepped into the water, he was killed, Saur said.
Rescue crews had to wait for Florida Power and Light, which was responding to power outages from the storm, to deenergize the grid for the neighborhood where Mixon lived before they could assist, Saur said.
There were no other immediate reports of any injuries or serious damage 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.
On Thursday morning, much of the Tampa Bay area was under a storm surge warning. The storm forced officials to close some lanes on two of the three bridges that cross Tampa Bay, connecting the St. Petersburg area to Tampa, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which links Pinellas and Manatee counties, was closed Wednesday but reopened after winds died down Thursday morning.
J.P. Brewer, owner of Salty’s Gulfport, was cleaning up after her beachside restaurant flooded Thursday morning.
“It was pretty bad last night when I came in,” adding that there were already 3 to 4 inches of water inside by just before high tide. “We’re in here doing our cleanup today and assessing the damage. I think we fared pretty well considering as bad as it looked last night.”
She said there was also some debris on the patio.
“I’ve been here almost 8 years and we’ve never had water damage,” Brewer said. “This is the worst I’ve seen.”
Firefighters in Tampa rescued around a dozen people who got stuck in flooding on Bayshore Boulevard. On Thursday morning, there were still a few abandoned vehicles on the flooded roadway, WFTS in Tampa reported.
Late Wednesday residents of Twin Cities Mobile Home Park in St. Petersburg were forced to evacuate because of flooding, the television station reported.
Another St. Petersburg neighborhood, Shore Acres, also reported heavy flooding.
“It’s not safe seeing we never lost power,” Corey Appelbaum told Fox 13 in Tampa. “Literally, our family of four is trapped on (a) bed and can’t get out until (the) water recedes out of fear of electrocution.”
The storm had meandered in the Gulf of Mexico since crossing over South Florida on Sunday. At 4:20 a.m. EST Thursday, Eta was centered about 5 miles (10 kilometers) north-northeast of Cedar Key and moving northeast near 13 mph (20 kph).
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.
Tampa International Airport suspended operations Wednesday afternoon, but was up and running early Thursday after the storm passed. Airport officials urged travelers to check flight statuses with their airlines.
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 from the Azores.
Frisaro reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Associated Press photographer Lynne Sladky contributed to this report.