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A strong tropical system is seething in the Caribbean on Friday, poised to strengthen significantly as it moves north toward the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasts show the system will intensify to a Category 3 as it nears Florida next week, where it could become the state’s first major hurricane since 2018.
The system, Tropical Depression Nine, formed over the central Caribbean Sea early Friday morning and is likely to be the next named storm of the season, according to the National Hurricane Center. It would be called Ian when it reached 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 on Friday afternoon when it tracked west-northwest at 15 mph.
While the system is expected to slowly strengthen over the next few days, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center have warned Rapid intensification is possible – if not likely – as it crosses 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 Category 5 monster when it collided with the Panhandle of Florida collided. Michael also underwent rapid intensification before hitting land, a phenomenon that has become more likely as sea temperatures rise due to the climate crisis.
Tropical storm winds could begin hitting southwest Florida early Tuesday, with a possible landfall on Wednesday. The exact time and location of the storm’s landfall in the US will depend heavily on its ultimate path, which could change in the coming days.
The National Hurricane Center said Friday night the forecast still showed “elevated route uncertainty” after entering the Gulf of Mexico, noting that weather models had shifted westward in recent runs. The latest track forecast suggests much of Florida’s Gulf Coast — including the eastern Panhandles — could be at risk.
As forecasts tighten, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday requested emergency federal assistance in anticipation of the threat and also declared a state of emergency for 24 counties. Per the state-level emergency order, members of the Florida National Guard will be activated and on standby awaiting orders.
The governor urged those who may be in the path of the storm to prepare.
“This storm has the potential to strengthen into a major hurricane and we encourage all Floridians to take their preparedness,” DeSantis said in a press release. “We are coordinating with all state and local government partners to track any potential impact from this storm.”
In the near future, Nine is expected to bring heavy rain to Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, northern Venezuela and northern Colombia, which could cause flash flooding and mudslides on the islands. The system is then forecast to gain strength and intensify into a tropical storm as it heads toward 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.
Predicted total precipitation:
- Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao: An 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 a local maximum of up to 12 inches
- Southern Haiti and Southern Dominican Republic: 2 to 4 inches with a local maximum of up to 6 inches
- West Central Cuba: 6 to 10 inches with local maximums up to 14 inches
It’s been a slow start to what was forecast to be an above-average hurricane season. Only one storm has made landfall on a US territory, and no hurricane has made landfall or threatened the contiguous United States.
Now, a week into the peak of hurricane season, the tropics appear to have woken up and forecasters are worried people have lost their vigilance.
“After a slow start, the Atlantic hurricane season has picked up rapidly,” tweeted Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University.
“People tend to lower their guard and think, oh yeah, we’re out of the woods,” Torres said. “But in reality the season goes on. We are still in September; we still have October ahead of us. Anything that forms over the Atlantic or the Caribbean we have to monitor very closely.”
The Atlantic hurricane season ends on November 30th.
No matter what, if you live in the Caribbean, Florida and other states along the Gulf Coast, keep an eye out for updated forecasts from this weekend through early next week.