The tropical depression lurking off Florida came to a near stop in the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday as hurricane forecasters issued a tropical storm watch for nearly a third of the state.
The storm, stalled over very warm water and encountering little resistance from wind shear, is expected to intensify over the next day as it makes a turn toward the Florida coast and picks up speed Thursday. Packing heavy rain, the storm could also push dangerous storm surges inland if it arrives at high tide. The storm could still increase to hurricane strength by the time it makes landfall, but National Hurricane Center forecasters warn that where it arrives is not as worrisome as wider impacts.
“We try to warn people that with these weaker systems, don’t focus on the track because hazards can extend many miles from where the center makes landfall,” said senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart.
Early Wednesday, the center issued surge warnings of up to five feet in the Panhandle, up to four feet near Tarpon Springs and up to two feet in Tampa Bay.
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At 11 a.m., the storm was located about 395 miles south, southwest of Apalachicola and had slowed from 2 mph earlier in the morning nearly to a stop. Sustained winds reached 35 mph. Tropical storm force winds could reach parts of the Gulf coast, from just north of Tampa, by Thursday afternoon, forecasters said. A tropical storm warning covered the top third of the state and extended into south Georgia near Brunswick. A hurricane watch extended from just north of Tampa to the Panhandle.
The sprawling wet storm also continued to dump heavy rain on western Cuba, where days of rain now total 20 inches. Not as much is predicted for Florida, but areas already saturated could face flooding with between five and ten inches predicted for Central Florida by Friday and isolated amounts topping 15 inches. Forecasters also warned the storm could whip up tornadoes in Central Florida late Wednesday night and in north Florida and southeast Georgia on Thursday.
In Miami, National Weather Service meteorologists issued a flood watch for South Florida. Scattered thunderstorms are expected this afternoon as the depression continues stirring up moist tropical air, possibly producing wind gusts of up to 50 mph. Beaches could also get dangerous rip currents.
Water managers across the state are already bracing for more water on the heels of a record wet winter. The South Florida Water Management District announced Tuesday it had begun moving water out of the Kissimmee basin. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also keeping close watch on Lake Okeechobee but so far is not moving any more polluted lake water into coastal estuaries still recovering from the winter flushing.
Gov. Rick Scott also issued the state of emergency for 42 counties during a Wednesday morning briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. Metro areas covered by the emergency declaration include Tallahassee, Tampa Bay, Orlando, Gainesville, Jacksonville and the Space Coast. South Florida is "in the clear," one state official said.
If the storm does crank up to a hurricane before landfall, it would end a decade-long lucky streak for the state. The last hurricane to strike, Wilma, hit in late October 2005. While better formed and much stronger than the tropical depression, Wilma likewise pushed across the Gulf of Mexico, landing just south of Marco Island before plowing across the state for more than four hours and emerging near Jupiter.
Staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.
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