Tropical Depression Nine: Gulf of Mexico in threat for a potential hurricane

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A powerful tropical system is swirling in the Caribbean on Friday, poised to strengthen significantly as it heads north toward the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasts show the system intensifying into a Category 3 as it approaches Florida next week, where it could become the state’s first major hurricane since 2018.

The system, Tropical Depression Nine, formed early Friday morning over the central Caribbean Sea and is likely to become the next named storm of the season, according to the National Hurricane Center. It would be named Ian if it strengthens to tropical storm status, which it could do as early as Friday night.

Nine had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph and was about 400 miles southeast of Jamaica by Friday afternoon as it tracked west-northwest at 15 mph.

While the system is expected to undergo gradual strengthening over the next few days, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warned rapid intensification is possible – if not likely – when it comes to the very warm waters of the Caribbean and the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.

If it strengthens to a Category 3 or higher before reaching Florida, it would be the first major hurricane to make landfall there since Hurricane Michael in 2018, which was a monster Category 5 storm when it collided with the Florida panhandle. Michael also underwent rapid intensification before landfall, a phenomenon made more likely as ocean temperatures warm due to the climate crisis.

Tropical storm-force winds may begin affecting southwest Florida early Tuesday, with landfall possible on Wednesday. The exact timing and location of the storm’s U.S. landfall will depend heavily on its final path, which could change in the coming days.

The National Hurricane Center said Friday evening that there was still “elevated track uncertainty” in the forecast after it entered the Gulf of Mexico, noting that weather models had been shifting in recent runs. The latest track forecast suggests that much of Florida’s Gulf Coast — including the eastern panhandle — may be at risk.

As forecasts intensify, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday requested federal emergency aid in anticipation of the threat and also declared a state of emergency for 24 counties. Under the statewide emergency order, members of the Florida National Guard will be activated and on standby awaiting orders.

The governor urged those in the storm’s possible path to prepare.

“This storm has the potential to strengthen into a major hurricane and we encourage all Floridians to make their preparations,” DeSantis said in a news release. “We are coordinating with all state and local government partners to monitor potential impacts from this storm.”

In the short term, Nine is expected to bring heavy rain to Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, northern Venezuela and northern Colombia, which could lead to flash floods and mudslides across the islands. The system is then forecast to gain strength, intensifying into a tropical storm as it tracks towards Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

A hurricane watch has been issued for the Cayman Islands, including Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. A tropical storm watch has been issued for Jamaica.

Forecast total rainfall:

  • Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao: Additional 1 to 2 inches
  • Northern Venezuela: 2 to 5 inches
  • Northern Colombia: 3 to 6 inches
  • Jamaica: 4 to 8 inches with local maximum up to 12 inches
  • Cayman Islands: 4 to 8 inches, with local maximum up to 12 inches
  • Southern Haiti and Southern Dominican Republic: 2 to 4 inches with local maximums up to 6 inches
  • Western, central Cuba: 6 to 10 inches with local maximums up to 14 inches

It has been a slow start to what was predicted to be an above average hurricane season. Only one storm has made landfall in a US territory, and no hurricane has made landfall or threatened the contiguous United States.

Now, a week past the peak of hurricane season, the tropics appear to have woken up, and forecasters are concerned that people have let their guard down.

“After a slow start, the Atlantic hurricane season has picked up quickly,” tweeted Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University.

“People tend to let their guard down and think, oh, yeah, we’re out of the woods,” Torres said. “But in reality the season continues. We’re still in September; we still have October to go. Anything that develops over the Atlantic or the Caribbean is something we have to follow very closely.

The Atlantic hurricane season ends November 30.

No matter what, if you live in the Caribbean, Florida and other states along the Gulf Coast, pay attention to the updated forecasts this weekend and early next week.