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By Jeff Huffman
The National Hurricane Center has classified the tropical low over the northeastern Gulf of Mexico as a “potential tropical cyclone” (PTC), and it could become a hurricane before hitting Louisiana this weekend.
The developing tropical cyclone was located 170 miles east-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, according to the first advisory issued by the National Hurricane Center at 11 a.m. Wednesday, with maximum sustained winds of 30 mph prompting a tropical storm watch for parts of Mississippi and Louisiana.
The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and light winds high in the atmosphere should encourage the system to intensify to Tropical Storm Barry later today or Thursday. Forecasters expect PTC Two storm to become a hurricane and produce storm surge over portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and the upper Texas coasts later this week.
A strong high pressure ridge over the lower Mississippi and Tennessee River Valleys is expected to steer what should be Barry westward toward the North-Central Gulf of Mexico Thursday and Friday. Most of the reliable computer models forecast Barry to turn more northward toward the Louisiana or upper Texas coasts, but disagree on how sharp and how soon the northward turn will commence.
It is expected to generate between 6-12 inches of rain near the central Gulf Coast, and possibly up to 18 inches. Residents can also expect dangerous storm surge and dangerous high tides.
Regardless of the storm’s future path, the effects for Florida should be limited to locally heavy rain, mainly west of the Apalachicola River, and an increasing risk of rip currents.
NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center says 2 to 5 inches of rain are most likely to occur from near Panama City to Pensacola through the weekend. These forecast amounts may be lowered if the storm continues to track west, away from Florida.
As the storm strengthens, rip currents will be a danger to swimmers. The National Weather Service offices in Tallahassee and Mobile say there’s a high rip current risk from Apalachicola westward to Pensacola. They say the rip currents will be frequent and are dangerous for all levels of swimmers.
In addition, the National Weather Service in Tampa has issued a high rip current risk from Pinellas county southward to Bonita Springs, including St. Petersburg, Sarasota, and Fort Myers. Southerly winds around the organizing tropical storm will make the seas dangerous in these areas through Thursday evening.
Locally, residents can continue to expect scattered morning showers and isolated thunderstorms off the gulf, primarily along the coast, according to the National Weather Service.
Those thunderstorms are forecast to continue with potentially heavy downpours through the afternoon, forecasters said.
Expect highs around 87 with a 70 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms.
Conditions will begin to ease a bit on Thursday as the system continues its westerly track and away from the Tampa Bay area, forecasters said. A 50 percent chance of mainly afternoon thunderstorms remains on Thursday and 60 percent on Friday, some possibly generating heavy downpours, before high pressure and clearing skies take hold this weekend.
The rest of Florida will see little change from the typical, mainly afternoon thunderstorms inland, with a few morning thunderstorms, especially near the Gulf coast.
WUSF staff writer Carl Lisciandrello contributed to this report.