More organized tropical depression targets Gulf Coast

A tropical depression pushing across the Gulf of Mexico continued to taunt Florida on Monday, still packing the potential to gain power.

Monday evening, the depression slowed to a crawl but struggled to marshal its forces. But by 5 a.m. Tuesday, National Hurricane Center forecasters said the storm had become better organized with strengthening to a tropical storm predicted for Tuesday.

Located about 305 miles west of Key West, the storm had picked up speed to about 7 mph with sustained winds of 35 mph.

Forecasters expect the storm to turn back toward the Florida coast on Wednesday, which could trigger a tropical storm or hurricane watch for parts of the Gulf Coast as early as Tuesday morning.

While South Florida dodged much of the rain predicted for the weekend, this week could be different. As the storm moves into the Gulf, parts of South Florida could see heavy rain through the middle of the week. National Weather Service meteorologists called for three to five inches through Wednesday, with scattered thunderstorms and squalls Monday.

“As this system goes into the Gulf of Mexico it’s just going to draw more moisture,” said National Weather Service Key West senior meteorologist Alan Albanese. “You’re going to get a southerly flow, so it’s going to bring moisture and scattered to numerous showers. But, again, nothing catastrophic.”

Across the peninsula, hurricane forecasters called for three to seven inches through Thursday, with up to 10 inches in spots between Naples and Steinhatchee, west of Gainesville.

The storm is also churning up rip currents along Atlantic beaches, the National Weather Service said, which could spread to the Gulf.

As it sideswiped Cuba over the weekend, the storm hammered the island with rain. It’s expected to dump another three to six inches through Wednesday. Up to 12 inches are possible in places, raising the chances of dangerous flash floods and mudslide, forecasters warned.

Most computer models show the storm making a turn to the right and tracking back over Florida later in the week as it speeds up. The center of the storm, which struggled to form all last week as it pushed west, was located on the northwest side. How powerful it becomes remains somewhat uncertain. Wind shear is still expected to keep the storm from intensifying by much as it makes landfall. But on Monday evening forecasters were still putting the odds of tropical storm force winds at landfall at between 40 and 50 percent.

Monday evening Gov. Rick Scott said emergency managers were upping preparations.

“It is important for Florida families and businesses to prepare for heavy rainfall, gusty winds and flooding,” Scott said in a statement. “Remember to never drive on flooded roadways, seek shelter in the event of severe weather and always have a plan in place to keep your family safe.”

Forecasters were also keeping an eye on another tropical depression off the Carolinas along with Hurricane Gaston, located about 600 miles east of Bermuda at 11 p.m. Monday.

The depression — crawling along at 5 mph with sustained winds of 35 mph about 125 miles southeast of Cape Hateras at 11 p.m. Monday — is expected to reach the Outer Banks by late Tuesday. Forecasters issued a tropical storm warning for the north part of the coast, from Cape Lookout to the Oregon Inlet, along with Pamlico Sound. The system is expected to become a tropical storm on Tuesday.

Farther east, Gaston was moving about 6 mph with winds reaching 105 mph. The hurricane is expected to keep moving to the northeast, but begin fizzling as it moves over cooler water and encounters drier air after the next couple of days.