ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Tropical Storm Emily churned ashore near Tampa Bay on Monday, starting a trek across the peninsula amid drenching rains and fears of scattered street flooding that prompted the governor to declare nearly half of Florida's counties in a state of emergency.
The National Hurricane Center said the ill-defined storm that sprang out of the Gulf of Mexico reached Florida's central Gulf Coast late Monday morning and was moving eastward at 9 mph. The Miami-based center said Emily was expected to weaken to a tropical depression while crossing Florida in coming hours on a path out into the Atlantic.
The Florida Highway Patrol closed the towering Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay on Monday morning because of high winds from Emily, which had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph as it crawled ashore. Sgt. Steve Gaskins urged motorists in an email to seek other routes after gusts at the bridge were clocked at more than 60 mph.
At 11 a.m. EDT Monday, Emily was centered about 35 miles southwest of Tampa and moving east at 9 mph. Forecasters say Emily was expected to dump between 2 to 4 inches of rain through Monday night between the Tampa bay area and Naples, with isolated amounts up to 8 inches in spots. Lesser amounts were predicted elsewhere.
On Treasure Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico west of St. Petersburg, a normally packed beach parking lot was almost empty of tourists Monday. Only a handful of people were on the white sand beach and a few bodysurfed small waves in an area that doesn't normally get waves. Some took selfies amid a mix of clouds and patches of blue sky on the northern edge of the storm system.
Kevin Baker, a 53-year-old retiree who takes his walks daily at Treasure Island, said he decided to venture out despite the storm "to watch the clouds to go by."
"This morning was pretty bad. It rained pretty hard. I got a little leak in my Jeep even," said Baker. But though the weather there had briefly improved at midday, he added, "we're supposed to get hit again."
A flood watch is in effect for much of the Tampa area, raising the threat of some scattered street flooding in low-lying areas. Law enforcement agencies urged motorists to drive with caution on a day that began as a miserable Monday morning commute for many. A few Tampa area communities, such as Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs, offered residents sandbags to stave off any flooding.
Gov. Rick Scott on Monday to declare a state of emergency for 31 of the state's 67 counties as a precaution. He headed to the state's Emergency Operations Center for a briefing on the storm and issued a news release urging those in the path of the storm to be vigilant. Forecasters also warned of possible isolated tornadoes and offshore waterspouts spinning off of the system, which sent swirling rain bands across parts of south Florida.
A tropical storm warning was in effect from the Anclote River to Bonita Beach on the Gulf Coast as the storm came ashore.