Nov. 11—Weather conditions continued to deteriorate in Manatee County on Wednesday as Tropical Storm Eta approached Florida's west coast.
As of 7 p.m., Tropical Storm Eta was about 45 miles west of St. Petersburg and about 55 miles west of Tampa. Eta was traveling north at 12 mph and with maximum sustained winds of 70 miles mph. The storm's general track was expected to remain steady overnight.
Eta was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm Wednesday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The center of Eta was was moving closer to the central-west coast of Florida Wednesday evening, and it was expected to remain just offshore overnight before the storm's predicted landfall north of Tampa Bay on Thursday.
Manatee County was expected to see the worst from Eta late Wednesday, and conditions were beginning to deteriorate as of about 4 p.m.
"It's going to be a rough night, make no mistake," Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur said.
Around 7:30 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a flood warning for west-central Manatee County and all of Sarasota County as heavy rain continued to fall. Meteorologists said that 4 to 6 inches of rain had already fallen in the affected areas, and another 1 to 3 inches were possible. Areas of Bradenton, Palmetto, Ellenton and Anna Maria Island would experience flooding, forecasters said.
Two shelters opened at noon at Manatee High School in Bradenton and Mills Elementary in Palmetto. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, capacity will be reduced. Manatee County Emergency Manager Steve Litschauer recommended they be used only as a "refuge of last resort."
As of 5 p.m., 30 people had taken shelter at Manatee High School but none at Mills, so it was closed for shelter purposes .
The hurricane watch for the west coast of Florida was canceled and replaced by a tropical storm warning. That warning extends from Bonita Beach to the Suwannee River. A tropical storm warning means that tropical storm conditions are expected within the next six to 12 hours.
A storm surge warning has also been issued from Bonita Beach north to Suwanee River, including Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. Storm surge warning means there is a danger of life-threatening inundation, from rising water moving inland from the coastline, in this case within 24 hours in the indicated locations.
Angry waves slapped against the seawall on either side of the Manatee River on Wednesday morning. In Bradenton, the deluge of rain flooded Riverview Boulevard with a least 1 foot of water, prompting the Bradenton Police Department to warn against traveling down that road. Elsewhere, the storm caused vehicle accidents and disabled vehicles, officials said.
All of west central Florida was also under a tornado watch, including Manatee County, as Eta approached. Tornado warnings were issued twice in Manatee County, the first for Lakewood Ranch, Bradenton and Palmetto and the second for Parrish.
The National Weather Service had not yet confirmed, as of 3 p.m., that a tornado actually touched down.
Just before noon, a wind gust of 50 miles mph was detected at Lake Manatee, according to the National Weather Service Tampa Bay.
Eta caused hundreds of power outages as its strong outer bands moved in Wednesday afternoon and evening. As of 7 pm., there were 2,800 FPL customers without power and another 4,540 whose power had already been restored. Peace River Electric Cooperative reported 11 customers without power, and 14 customers that had already been restored in Manatee County.
Fluctuating forecast prompts quick decisions
The storm intensified and sped up overnight Tuesday, causing emergency management officials to move quickly on Wednesday morning. They ordered voluntary evacuations for island communities and low-lying areas and opened two shelters as a "refuge of last resort."
Manatee County Schools, which were already closed on Wednesday for Veterans Day, will be switching to e-learning on Thursday and Friday and campuses will be closed.
The unexpected eastward shift also prompted Bradenton City Council to hold an emergency meeting Wednesday morning. Officials voted unanimously to declare a local state of emergency in response to Eta.
"I'd rather be safe than sorry," said Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey.
The city of Palmetto also moved to declare a local state of emergency Wednesday afternoon. In an update to Palmetto City Council, Police Chief Scott Tyler warned of Eta's impact.
"The latest update we have is that the storm was declared a hurricane this morning and expected to make landfall around midnight, but we're on the east side and the east side is always the bad side of it."
A local state of emergency is a precautionary move that allows local government agencies to be eligible for reimbursements on storm-related expenditures. Manatee officials made a similar declaration Tuesday afternoon.
According to City Administrator Carl Callahan, city employees are already tending to flood-prone parts of Bradenton by installing barricades and signs that warn of flooding hazards.
Sandbags were being distributed in the city of Bradenton and throughout various locations in Manatee County on Wednesday. Residents were urged to get all their preparations done by early afternoon as conditions were expected to begin deteriorating.
"By late afternoon or early this evening, people need to be where they are going to be," Saur said Wednesday morning. "The earlier the better."
All MCAT bus service was suspended at 1 p.m. on Wednesday and a decision was anticipated to be made Thursday on whether or when to restart service.
The state-run COVID-19 testing site shut down at noon and will also make a decision Thursday whether or when to reopen.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge was also closed.
Surfers risk the rough surf
Public beaches were shutdown for swimming on Wednesday morning, along with access to parking on Manatee County Public Beach and Coquina Beach.
But dozens of surfers were risking the rough surf on Cortez Beach in order to catch the rare waves.
"Currently right now, I wouldn't say anywhere along our coast line is a safe place to swim just because of the rip currents, the surf and the lateral currents," Marine Rescue Chief Joe Westerman said. "I will only say that stronger surfers choose that. It is a strong surf-line. It is hurricane surf and you can misjudge it sometimes and get yourself into trouble."
On-lookers were asked to stay away.
"If you don't need to be out on the island, don't come out to the island at this time," Westerman said. "Wait for the storm to pass and then come back and enjoy our area but until then, with the tidal surge we are expecting, it's not going to be a safe place to be."
High tide Wednesday night is expected to occur at 9:17 p.m. and to be about a foot above the median tide. Storm surge is public safety officials' biggest concern for Anna Maria Island, with the current forecast predicting a storm surge of anywhere between two to five feet.
"With that a storm surge of anywhere from three to five feet, we are expecting there are going to be some low-lying areas that are going to flood on the island," Westerman said. "Those residents that lives in those area know what they are dealing with."
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