MIAMI — A tropical depression formed Friday morning in the hot waters of the Caribbean, a system that the National Hurricane Center expects to significantly strengthen and make landfall somewhere in Florida around Wednesday — potentially as a Category 3 hurricane.
Exactly where is the big question and concern, with nearly the entire peninsula potentially at risk. The first cone of concern is pointed near Fort Myers, but forecasters caution that the initial track could change.
The National Hurricane Center, in an 11 a.m. update, forecast that Tropical Depression No. 9 to strengthen into a tropical storm sometime Friday. If it beats out other brewing systems in the Atlantic, it would be named Hermine.
At five days out, the hurricane center’s error cone is nearly 200 miles wide, and the exact forecast for where the center of the storm (or its impacts) makes landfall could shift in coming days.
Jamie Rhone, acting director of the NHC, told Floridians it was time to check hurricane supplies and top off gas tanks but warned that it was too soon to know exactly where or how the storm could impact the state.
“I’m a Floridian too so I’m going to speak to you candidly, don’t panic,” he said. “We are still in the early stages of this event.”
South Florida and the Keys need to have preparation done by Monday night, he said. On the current track, South Florida could see winds starting to pick up Tuesday night, although that could change.
“We have a lot of time. This forecast can and will evolve,” he said. “It is important that you take this threat seriously.”
On Friday morning, Tropical Depression Nine was still battling wind shear leftover from Hurricane Fiona’s run through the Caribbean earlier this week, which forecasters said will hold it back from strengthening into a tropical storm for a little longer, maybe later Friday.
The 11 a.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center put it about 515 miles east-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and about 1,015 miles east-southeast of Havana, Cuba. It had 35 mph maximum sustained winds and was moving west-northwest at 14 mph.
It’s expected to keep moving west in the Caribbean over the weekend as a tropical storm, until around Monday, when forecasters predict it will run straight into one of the most optimal scenarios for storm strengthening: a very deep patch of hot ocean water, low storm shear and favorable steering conditions.
The hurricane center’s latest forecast suggests those conditions could propel the depression into a Category 2 hurricane with 110 mph winds as it crosses Cuba and heads toward Florida, where it is projected to strengthen into a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds.
The 11 a.m. update nudged the forecasted track near Florida a little west. But that can certainly change in the coming days and the entire peninsula remained at potential risk.
“There is increased spread in the guidance for this portion of the track forecast, with day 5 positions that span from the eastern Gulf to east of the Florida peninsula,” the center’s 11 a.m. advisory read, noting that its prediction was in the center of that guidance.
Jeff George, director of Florida’s public radio emergency network, urged Floridians to keep an eye on the forecast.
“Uncertainty persists in it’s long term forecast track, but Gulf Coast residents should stay alert,” he tweeted.
However, exactly how strong would-be Hermine gets — and where the final track ends up pointing — depends a lot on where and when it hits those favorable conditions, tweeted Tomer Burg, an atmospheric science PhD student at Ohio University.
“TD 9’s intensity will also depend on its track,” he said. A more eastern track and quicker curve to the northeast means it spends less time in that strengthening environment and might put a ceiling on its intensity.
Jackson Dill, a meteorologist for WSVN news, said the two major hurricane models show two different paths once the storm nears Cuba. The Euro model calls for a faster storm that moves closer to South Florida, while the GFS predicts a slower moving storm that tends toward North Florida.
There are currently no watches or warnings for this depression, but the hurricane center warned Jamaica and the Cayman Islands should closely monitor the storm’s progress. For now, those spots are expected to see about 4 to 8 inches of rain, and up to a foot in some areas.
Forecasters say western to central Cuba could see more, at 6 to 10 inches and up to 14 inches in some spots.
While all eyes in Florida are on the soon-to-be tropical storm, there are four other systems forecasters are watching in the Atlantic basin, including another recently formed tropical depression that could beat the Caribbean depression to the name Hermine.