MIAMI — Tropical Storm Eta swept up the Gulf Coast of Florida on Wednesday night with a storm surge, strong winds and heavy rainfall as its edge passed over the Tampa Bay area.
Thousands of Floridians lost electrical power and streets were submerged just days after Eta soaked the central part of the Florida Keys and its strongest winds battered the Upper Keys and Miami-Dade and Broward Counties over the weekend.
The storm was expected to slowly weaken as it approached the Gulf Coast and to rapidly lose strength after its eye made landfall on Thursday morning along the north central Gulf Coast, the National Hurricane Center said.
“It’s really been a crazy storm to watch,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida told the Weather Channel on Wednesday. Later, he announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had granted his request for “a pre-landfall emergency declaration” to help mobilize federal aid to the affected parts of the state.
The storm had briefly regained hurricane strength early in the day but weakened to a tropical storm and was about 55 miles northwest of St. Petersburg at 10 p.m. Wednesday, with maximum sustained winds of 65 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center. But Eta’s tropical-storm-force winds can extend up to 115 miles from its center, officials said.
Mayor Jane Castor of Tampa said Wednesday that the city was expecting a tidal surge of up to four feet. She urged people to remain at home but said five shelters had been opened. She warned that “the weather can change in an instant” and asked residents to stay vigilant.
“This storm has been less predictable than most storms,” she said. “This one has changed its trajectory more than once — and it may do it again — so we want to ensure everyone is safe.”
Duke Energy, which has more than 7.7 million customers in six states, said more than 35,000 customers in Florida were without power late Wednesday night. Many of those affected customers were in the Tampa Bay area, according to the company’s outage map.
Social media users posted videos of seawater flooding coastal streets in St. Pete Beach and the Courtney Campbell Causeway, which connects Clearwater to Tampa.
Josh Rojas, a reporter with Spectrum Bay News 9, said one thoroughfare in St. Petersburg, Coffee Pot Boulevard, was “completely flooded.”
About 15 miles east of that scene, Nick Merinos, a meteorologist at the station, recorded a car being pulled out of floodwaters on Gulf Boulevard in Madeira Beach.
Later, Josh Fiallo, a reporter with The Tampa Bay Times, recorded heavy winds and flooding at Bayshore Boulevard.
Eta is the 28th named storm and the 12th hurricane of an unusually busy Atlantic hurricane season, which started June 1 and ends Nov. 30. The storm’s formation tied a record set in 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma devastated parts of the Gulf Coast.
This year, as in 2005, so many storms grew strong enough to be named that meteorologists turned to the Greek alphabet after exhausting the list of names maintained by the World Meteorological Organization.
Heavy rainfall is forecast across western Cuba and South Florida and is likely to spread north across portions of western and northern Florida into Friday.
Several universities in the storm’s path have already canceled classes on Thursday, including the University of Florida in Gainesville and the University of South Florida in Tampa. The public school district in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, and the Hernando School District also announced that they would be closed on Thursday.
Researchers have said that global warming is changing storms, with warmer ocean temperatures contributing to this year’s hyperactive hurricane season.
The Hurricane Center warned that flooding was still possible in South Florida on Wednesday, even after the storm soaked the region with more than 13 inches of rain. The storm turned some South Florida streets into shallow rivers on Monday and left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity.
Mayor Lenny Curry of Jacksonville, in Florida’s northeast corner, said the storm was expected to hit the city on Thursday, bringing heavy rain, strong winds and some flooding. He urged residents to stay out of the water, warning that the surf and rip currents could be dangerous. The city did not anticipate evacuations and planned to keep municipal offices open.
“I know this has been a rough year,” Mr. Curry said at a news conference. “2020 has been something else for our country, the world and our community, and experiencing a tropical storm after the end of hurricane season just adds to it.”
Michael Levenson contributed reporting.