With the central Gulf Coast, including ultra-vulnerable New Orleans, now apparently out of the woods, the question becomes: could Hurricane Ernesto be the nightmare hurricane for the Florida Keys and/or Tampa Bay? With the caveat that we should be looking at the “cone,” not the track line, the forecast track and computer models are moving in a direction which makes that seem possible:
The good news is, land interaction with Cuba should interfere with Ernesto, and the water between Cuba and Florida doesn’t have as much heat potential as the water in the central Gulf:
Hopefully, all that will prevent Ernesto from become a truly intense hurricane — i.e., Cat 4 or 5 — as I feared it would on the previous track. Still, any major hurricane (Cat. 3 or above) hitting the Keys would be a Very Bad Thing, and I’m guessing a Cat. 3 hitting Tampa Bay probably wouldn’t be a walk in the park, either.
Again I should emphasize: it’s far too early to know exactly where this thing is headed, and everyone within the track “cone” should be making the requisite preparations.
UPDATE: Charles Fenwick says where Ernesto hits Cuba is important, and offers a cautionary note:
A huge wildcard in the intensity forecast is exactly where Ernesto goes into Cuba at. The official forecast takes it very near the highest point on the island, the 6750 foot high Pico Turquino. Hurricane Ella of 1958 went more or less square into it as a category three hurricane and came out as a tropical storm. Cleo of 1964 passed just to the south and went from a category three to a one in the process. If the future track of Ernesto were to go just as forecast, or ever so slightly to the right over the next 36 hours, then the weakening would probably be quite a bit more substantial than the forecast currently shows.
Other than that, however, there isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t much impediment for Ernesto. The upper air enviroment is forecast to be extremely favorable for strengthening. The experience of Charley 2004 shows what can happen to a hurricane in a favorable enviroment, in spite of the seemingly limited space between Cuba and Florida. A track ever slightly left of the current forecast, keeping the storm mostly over water with the exception of a brief jaunt over the flat terrain in the center of Cuba would set up quite a worrisome situation.
And another cautionary note:
The scenario bringing Ernesto into peninsular Florida is the erosion of a mid-level ridge of high pressure that would otherwise push Ernesto to the west. It is the sort of scenario that the models are often too eager to forecast (such as was the case during Ivan in 2004). Because of that there is a chance for the forecast to get pushed back to the west somewhat, especially if the upper-air mission to be flown tonight found a stronger ridge than the models are depicting.
Meanwhile, Mark Sudduth summarizes what has changed:
Ernesto is a prime example of how tricky it can be to forecast a hurricane. Last night, it looked like the Florida panhandle could be directly impacted by Ernesto in about six days. Now, it looks like the Florida west coast could take a direct hit from the hurricane. Overnight, the global and regional models changed their tune fairly dramatically and have turned Ernesto sharper to the right of its original forecast track- thus greatly increasing the threat to Cuba, the Florida Keys and then the west coast of Florida. Even the Southeast, especially Georgia and the Carolinas will need to monitor Ernesto’s track as it may end up being a problem farther north as well.
The latest track takes the hurricane inland near Tampa on Thursday. Trust me, this is going to make national news as people will have to be evacuated that thought there was little threat from this hurricane. The exact track is going to be critical as Tampa Bay is highly vulnerable to storm surge- as is most of the west coast of Florida. The NHC currently forecasts a 90-100 mph hurricane making landfall, hopefully it will not be stronger. I am concerned about people being caught off-guard since this is quite a change from earlier thoughts, so it is important that people in Florida pay close attention to the future track of Erensto.
I’m off to Shannon’s baby shower now, so updates will be sparse-to-nonexistent for the rest of the afternoon, unless they come from guestbloggers. But check out the links at top right — lots of great weatherbloggers and other info there, including of course the NHC.