After meandering for the past day, Tropical Storm Debby appears headed toward Florida's west coast. However, most of the state, including South Florida, remains in the cone of uncertainty.
At 1 p.m. on Monday, the storm was in the northern Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles southwest of Apalachicola with sustained winds of 45 mph. It was crawling northeast at 5 mph.
The good news for now: The system continues to lose strength and organization, the result of dry air and wind shear attacking its core.
It is projected to weaken further over the next few days and could become a tropical depression. However, it holds potential to rebound if the wind shear lets up.
An expansive system, with tropical-force winds extending more than 200 miles from its center, Debby continues to drench much of Florida and could produce 10 to 15 inches of rain over the eastern section of the Panhandle. Some areas could be swamped with up to 25 inches, forecasters said.
It also could generate a storm surge of up to 3 feet above normal tide levels. A tropical storm warning has been posted along the Florida Gulf coast from Destin to Englewood.
Forecasters in North and Central Florida warned that both regions could see flooding through Wednesday. A tornado watch is in effect for much of the state, including Palm Beach County, through 11 p.m. on Monday.
South Florida's forecast otherwise calls for mostly cloudy and breezy conditions with a 60 percent chance of rain on Monday. The rain chance eases slightly to 50 percent on Tuesday and Wednesday.
According to the South Florida Water Management District, since Friday Debby has produced 6.2 inches of rain in Palm Beach County, 5 inches along the Broward County coastline and 3.3 inches in Miami-Dade County. Despite all the rain it received, Lake Okeechobee remains 1.42 feet below normal for this time of year.
Because it's caught in weak steering currents, Debby isn't projected to make landfall until Thursday. Under the latest projection, that would be in Florida's Big Bend area.
However, it could end up heading farther south toward Tampa or Fort Myers, as forecasters are unsure if its current motion will continue or is temporary.
Senior hurricane specialist Richard Pasch of the National Hurricane Center said Debby's forecast is uncertain because the models are "all over the place."
However, he said the most likely scenario is that a trough of low pressure over the northeastern United States will push the storm northeast or east and ultimately into the Atlantic.
"Regardless of which scenario plays out, the cyclone does not appear to be going anywhere soon," Pasch said.
Statewide, about 35,000 people have lost power because of the storms. Nine shelters have been opened in Central and North Florida, but have only seen a few dozen people.
Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency for Florida on Monday, allowing damaged areas to draw on state resources. He urged Florida residents to be cautious and to pay attention to news and weather reports.
“Listen to your local weather, your local emergency managers in regards to flooding, evacuations, other things that are happening,” Scott said. “Clearly, don’t drive into any flooded roadways. If you see a power line down, assume it’s live.”
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Debby roughed up Central Florida on Sunday.
Five tornadoes touched down in Hardee, Highlands, Polk and Pinellas counties, and at least one death was attributed to a tornado that struck near Venus, on Florida's west coast. The storm's winds also downed power lines, caused trees to fall and damaged homes in Lakeland.
Tampa Bay's Sunshine Skyway bridge was shut down after winds of more than 55 mph were recorded. In Marion County, the Sharpes Ferry Bridge also was closed.
In his blog, Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist for Weather Underground, puts Debby into historical context:
“Remarkably, Debby's formation on June 23 comes a full two months ahead of the usual formation date of the season's fourth storm in the Atlantic, August 23.
“Debby's formation beats by twelve days the previous record for formation of the fourth named storm of the year in the Atlantic, set in2005, when Hurricane Dennis was named on July 5."
Masters also said Debby is evidence that Atlantic hurricane seasons have been starting earlier in recent years. He attributes that to global warming.
"Three out of four of this year's early quartet of storms - Alberto, Beryl, and Debby - formed in ocean areas that were more than 1 degree above average, which is an unusually high amount of warmth," he said.
"We should expect to see more early-season Atlantic tropical storms as a consequence of global warming, since cool ocean temperatures are a key impediment to formation of such storms."
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