Nate picked up speed as it neared the Yucatán Peninsula Friday, bound for the Louisiana coast, where it will likely make landfall as a hurricane late Saturday or early Sunday.
At 11:30 p.m. Nate became a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds at 75 mph. Nate, which has already left more than 20 dead in its wake, was located about 95 miles west-northwest of the western tip of Cuba and 495 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi river. The storm was moving quickly to the north-northwest at 22 mph, National Hurricane Center forecasters said. A hurricane warning issued earlier for the southeast coast was expanded to include New Orleans and the surrounding area, extending east to the Florida border.
The storm is expected to intensify as it crosses the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday and strike the U.S. Gulf coast as a Category 1 hurricane, spreading heavy rain and producing a storm surge that could reach parts of the Florida Panhandle.
The storm is being steered by a high-pressure ridge expected to take it across southeastern Louisiana. Forecasters are calling for sustained winds of 80 mph when Nate makes landfall late Saturday or early Sunday but warn that there’s a chance the storm could rapidly gain strength as it crosses the Gulf of Mexico. However, two reliable models are forecasting only modest intensification.
Tropical storm-force winds extend 125 miles.
Nate leaves behind a trail of destruction across Central America, killing at least 22. In rain-soaked Nicaragua, where rivers were already swollen after two weeks of rain, 15 people were reported dead, the Associated Press said. Costa Rican officials blamed the storm for seven deaths and said 15 people were missing.
As the hurricane approaches Saturday, forecasters warned that conditions along the Gulf will worsen quickly. Storm surge and a high tide could cause water levels along the coast between Morgan City and the Alabama and Florida border to rise four to seven feet.
While Florida will likely be spared a direct hit, forecasters warned that Nate’s heaviest rains are falling on the storm’s east side. The Panhandle should expect heavy rain and could see a two- to four-foot storm surge, they said. The National Weather Service’s Mobile office is calling for three to five inches of rain that could trigger a flash flood watch.
A hurricane watch has been issued for parts of the Panhandle, from the Alabama border to the Walton County line, with a tropical storm watch extending further east to Indian Pass. A storm-surge watch also extends to Indian Pass.
On Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott issued a state of emergency. The state is monitoring the power grid battered by Irma and has asked utilities to begin reporting outages and repairs if needed, the governor’s office said. The Florida Department of Transportation also has emergency crews on standby to begin clearing roads and 100 National Guardsmen readying for disaster response.
Louisana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned residents to prepare for heavy rain, storm surge and wind, and to be where they intend to hunker down by “dark on Saturday.”
Nate should move quickly and not stall like Hurricane Harvey, which caused record-breaking flooding in Texas in early September. However, Louisiana officials are still keeping watch on pumps in New Orleans, which suffered problems over the summer during flash floods.
Ahead of the storm, officials ordered parts of the coast east of New Orleans evacuated.
In the Gulf of Mexico, six out of 737 oil platforms were evacuated. No drilling rigs were evacuated, but one moveable rig was taken out of the storm’s path, officials said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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