Tropical Storm Andrea, the first named storm of Atlantic season, formed in the Gulf of Mexico and is heading for the Big Bend, according to hurricane forecasters in Miami. Andrea is to blame for the Tampa Bay area being under a flood watch, creating the chance of coastal flooding and severe downpours through Friday. The tropical storm is expected to head northeast and then come ashore at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Big Bend area of Florida, according to Steve Jerve, News Channel 8 chief meteorologist. But it will still give the Tampa Bay area tropical storm force winds and gusts Then Andrea heads over southeastern Georgia and eastern South Carolina, before heading up the East Coast.
At 11 p.m. Wednesday, Andrea had 40 mph winds and was headed north at 6 mph, a bit faster than it was moving in the afternoon. The storm is about 270 miles west-southwest of the Tampa Bay area, according to Jerve. Forecasters don't expect Andrea to change in strength over the next 48 hours. As a result, the chance of rain is 80 percent for Thursday, before falling to 50 percent for Friday and 40 percent on Saturday, Jerve said. One thing to be wary of is the possibility of tornadoes in the outer bands from Andrea, Jerve said. He said Marathon in the Florida Keys was under a tornado warning Wednesday night. About 4-7 inches of rain are expected to fall in the area on Thursday and Friday as Andrea approaches the Panhandle. The National Weather Service in Ruskin issued a flood watch through Thursday evening from Pasco County to Lee County. The approaching storm prompted Hillsborough County officials to offer up sandbag fixings for residents concerned about flooding. Materials -- sand and bags -- will be available Thursday from 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., as weather permits, at three county public works service areas: * 9805 Sheldon Road * 8718 Old Big Bend Road * 4702 Sydney Road Tampa officials are asking residents to check storm drains to make sure they are clear of leaves and trash. Sandbags were to be made available from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Thursday at three locations: * Himes Sports Complex, 4500 S. Himes Ave. * Jackson Heights Playground, 3310 E. Lake Ave. * City of Tampa Solid Waste Department, 4010 W. Spruce St. Sand baggers must show identification verifying residence within the city limits. A valid driver's license or utility bill will serve as appropriate identification. Sandbags also are available at the public works complex at 6132 Pine Hill Road in New Port Richey from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. through Friday. Sand and sandbags are being handed out at 6420 Pine Hill Road during the same time. Proof of residency must be shown. Hillsborough County high school graduation ceremonies all are held inside at the Florida State Fairgrounds so schedules remain intact, said a school district spokeswoman Wednesday. The last day of school is Friday and there were no intentions of cancelling classes, she said Wednesday. In Pinellas County, Lakewood High School moved its graduation to Friday morning because of the inclement weather expected Thursday. Other Pinellas high schools holding graduations outdoors have contingency plans should bad weather threaten the ceremonies. Principals at those schools will send out recorded messages to alert families as soon as a decision to postpone has been made. Clearwater officials are concerned about coastal flooding and dangerous rip tides along the popular beaches. Lifeguards will keep an eye on the weather Thursday and raise warning flags, should the need arise. Yellow flags mean caution, red flags signify a high hazard. Sand also is available at the public utilities department at 1650 N. Arcturas Ave. People must have their own sand bags, ties and a shovel.The American Red Cross on Wednesday warned Florida's West Coast residents to get ready. "By preparing together for floods, we can make our families safer and our communities stronger," said Linda Carbone, CEO of Florida's West Coast Region. "We can help you and your family create a flood preparedness plan now, before our community is threatened by excessive rainfall." Among the suggestions: * Create and practice a family disaster plan. Talk to everyone in the household about what to do if a disaster hits; where to meet, who to contact. Assemble and maintain an emergency preparedness packet with a first-aid kit and medications, food and other essentials. Be prepared to evacuate family and pets at a moment's notice. * Heed flood warnings. Listen to local radio and TV for updated flood information. A flood watch means flooding or flash flooding is possible while a flood warning means flooding or flash flooding already is occurring or will occur soon. When a flood or flash flood warning is issued for an area, people living there should head for higher ground and stay there. * Stay away from flooded areas. Residents should steer clear of areas with standing water more than 3 or 4 inches deep and avoid flooded roads. Flooded roads can wreck cars and endanger lives, according to AAA, which also issued warnings Wednesday. Dangers include driving on streets underwater and hydroplaning on wet pavement. Motorists should drive slower and leave ample space bertween vehicles and avoid driving on flooded streets. "It's important that drivers heed official warnings and avoid driving on wet and flooded roads if able," said AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins. "If motorists must drive, AAA recommends they drive slower than the allotted speed limit to decrease their chances of hydroplaning and avoid standing water at all costs."While Tampa area residents brace themselves, some are welcoming the rain, as the region has been parched this spring with lower than normal precipitation. "We are behind in rainfall district-wide and need the rains to bring lake and stream conditions back up to normal levels," said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which oversees water resources in the 16-county area of West Central Florida. "The only concern is that 3 to 5 inches may cause localized, but not widespread, flooding." On Thursday, there is a threat of waterspouts or tornadoes. As Andrea nears the coastline on Thursday, the surge could push water levels to two feet above the normal high tide, which could cause minor coastal flooding, the National Weather Service said. There is a 70 percent chance of rain today, and up to 80 percent on Thursday. The rain is expected to ease by Saturday as the system moves to the north.