A tropical depression churning across the southern Caribbean could become Tropical Storm Nate on track to hit the Gulf Coast, and possibly Florida, as a hurricane over the weekend.
In their 5 a,m. Thursday advisory, National Hurricane Center forecasters said the storm is moving over warm waters and encountering light wind shear that could allow quick intensification. Its possible sustained winds could reach near 85 mph in three days, making it a Category 1 storm as it approaches the Gulf Coast on Saturday. Forecasters upped their intensity forecast from earlier Wednesday, but said there’s still a chance the storm could weaken as it crosses Central America and the Yucatan.
“Residents along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida should monitor the progress of this system for the next several days and heed any advice given by local officials,” The National Hurricane said in its latest advisory.
At 5 a.m. Thursday, the depression was located 50 miles south of the Nicaraguan coast, where it could dump up to 20 inches of rain and trigger dangerous mudslides and flash flooding, National Hurricane Center forecasters said. Sustained winds reached 35 mph.
The storm is expected to move across northeastern Nicaragua early Thursday and eastern Honduras late Thursday into Friday, bringing heavy rain along much of the Central American coast.
Forecasters said it remains too early to say where the storm will impact the Gulf Coast. The storm is being steered by a high pressure ridge over the southwest Atlantic, but a low-pressure trough moving across the Florida Straits could force it to move more quickly toward the north-northwest by Friday and into the Gulf of Mexico Saturday. How much land it crosses could also weaken it, complicating the track forecast.
Reliable U.S. and European models differed on the storm’s future path by as much as 90 miles, forecasters said. Track forecasts so far in advance can also have wide margins of error. So far this year, track forecasts four to five days in advance have been averaging errors of about 170 to 230 miles.
While the timing and magnitude of the storm remain unclear, the Florida Panhandle and Gulf Coast west to Louisiana should remain alert for the next several days, forecasters said. The storm is expected to bring high winds, storm surge and heavy rain.
Tropical storm warnings have been issued for parts of Nicaragua and Honduras, where heavy rainfall is forecast. Costa Rica and Panama could get five to 10 inches of rain, with up to 20 inches possible in some locations. Late Wednesday, a Hurricane Watch was issued for parts of Mexico.
Squally weather blanketing South Florida Wednesday is not related to the storm, but part of another system over west Cuba and the Florida straits. Strong wind shear is expected to keep that system disorganized, which is still expected to generate heavy rain and gusty wind in Florida and the Bahamas.
Wednesday’s depression becomes the 16th cyclone in a record-breaking season that hit feverish intensity over the last two months with five named storms since Aug. 30. Three lethal storms — Harvey, Irma and Maria — formed in less than 30 days.
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In September, the highest amount of hurricane energy on record occurred, along with the most number of days with a major hurricane, according to Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach.
Earlier in the season, forecasters upped their prediction for the number of storms to between 14 and 19, with two to five major hurricanes. The season ends Nov. 30.