Tropical Storm Elsa weakens, churns toward Georgia after sparing Florida from significant damage

Nation/world

A weakened but resilient Tropical Storm Elsa drenched northern Florida and southern Georgia with heavy rain Wednesday, killing at least one person near the state line and threatening to maintain tropical storm intensity until it reaches New England.

The National Hurricane Center said Elsa still packed 45 mph (72 kph) winds more than six hours after making landfall along Florida’s northern Gulf Coast. The storm’s center was near Valdosta, Georgia, by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Elsa seemed to spare Florida from significant damage, though it still threatened flooding downpours and possibly tornadoes. The coasts of Georgia and South Carolina were under a tropical storm warning Thursday. Forecasters predicted Elsa would remain a tropical storm into Friday, and issued a tropical storm watch from North Carolina to Massachusetts.

Authorities in Jacksonville, Florida, said one person was killed Wednesday when a tree fell and struck two cars. The National Weather Service reported 50 mph (80 kph) wind gusts in the city. The tree fell during heavy rains, said Capt. Eric Prosswimmer of the Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department. He said no one else was injured.

Gov. Ron DeSantis told a news conference that no major structural damage had been reported as Elsa came ashore.

“Clearly, this could have been worse,” the Republican governor said, though he cautioned that many storm-related deaths happen after the system passes.

On the Georgia coast, the National Weather Service confirmed on Twitter that a possible tornado had caused damage in Camden County just north of the Florida line. Video aired by WJAX-TV showed what appeared to be a recreational vehicle overturned amid bent trees and scattered debris. The area was under a tornado warning Wednesday evening.

“We had a tornado touch down,” Charles White, Camden County’s emergency management director, said when reached by phone. He gave no further information before hanging up.

The hurricane center said parts of Florida could see up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) of total rain accumulation from the storm. There was also a risk of flooding in Georgia and South Carolina, which were predicted to get 3 to 5 inches (8 to 13 centimeters) of rainfall. Tornado watches were in effect in parts of northern Florida and southeast Georgia into Wednesday evening.

Valdosta, Georgia, and surrounding Lowndes County came under a flash flood warning as Elsa’s center passed nearby. Some roads and yards flooded, and nearby Moody Air Force Base a reported wind gust of 41 mph (66 kph), said county spokeswoman Meghan Barwick.

“I’m not aware of any distress calls,” Barwick said, “but we have seen some flooding and we are seeing power lines and trees down.”

Scattered power outages were being reported along Elsa’s path Wednesday evening, with about 35,000 homes and businesses on either side of the Georgia-Florida state line without electricity, according to the website poweroutages.us.

The storm complicated the search for potential survivors and victims in the collapse of a Miami-area condominium on June 24. Regardless, crews continued the search in the rubble of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, on the state’s southeast coast.

The storm also temporarily halted demolition Wednesday on the remainder of an overturned cargo ship off the coast of Georgia. The South Korean freighter Golden Ray capsized in September 2019 off St. Simons Island, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Savannah. Crews have removed more than half the ship since November.

Most salvage workers were sheltering indoors Wednesday, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Himes, a spokesperson for the multiagency command overseeing the demolition. The towering crane being used to cut the ship apart into giant chunks remained in place straddling the wreck, stabilized by mooring lines attached to anchors and pilings.

“As far as the wreck shifting, that’s highly unlikely,” Himes said.

Himes said crews would be watching to see if Elsa’s winds scatter any debris from the ship into the surrounding water. The vessel’s remains are open at both ends, like a giant tube on its side, and its cargo decks still contain hundreds of bashed and mangled cars.

At the Hillbilly Fish Camp and R.V. Park in the south Georgia town of Waycross, Margie Freitag hunkered down Wednesday after pulling boats out of the water and picking up loose items ahead of the storm. Freitag said she had plenty of supplies after stocking up for the coronavirus pandemic.

“We already had flashlights and batteries and were totally stocked up with food, water and things like that,” she said.

In Edisto Beach, South Carolina, Wednesday started muggy and overcast.

“The kind of day you can just feel the weather wanting to move in,” Mayor Jane Darby said.

The forecast for the barrier island 30 miles (48 kilometers) down the coast from Charleston was similar to a heavy summer thunderstorm – an inch or two (2.5 to 5 centimeters) of rain, winds gusting up to about 40 mph (64 kph) and maybe a little beach erosion. Other South Carolina beaches expected similar conditions, coming mostly overnight to be less of a bother to visitors during an extremely busy summer.

“Businesses are struggling with workers in short supply a lot more than they are going to be bothered by this storm,” Darby said. “That’s where the stress is now.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard said 13 people were rescued from a boat that had left Cuba with 22 people aboard late Monday. Nine people remained missing. Elsa was also blamed for three deaths in the Caribbean before it reached Florida.

Elsa is the earliest fifth-named storm on record, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.

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