“Expect rain, winds” from Isaac

By Steve Estes

Whether Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isaac makes landfall directly on the Florida Keys overnight Sunday, or skirts the edge, local forecasters agree that we will face at least tropical storm force winds into Monday morning.

“We are telling people that this is a storm that needs to be monitored closely,” said Bill South, forecaster with the Key West National Weather Service Office.

“Everyone who plans to stay around for the storm should review their personal disaster plan and check their hurricane kit,” he said.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, the storm had not yet reached hurricane proportions, but South said that was merely a formality.

“There are a couple of things that could happen that could slow down the strengthening of the storm through Thursday (after our publication deadline),” said South.

If the anticipated strengthening does not occur, South said that the mountains of Haiti, the Dominican Republic or Cuba could serve to tear the storm down.

“Right now (Wednesday afternoon) we are seeing indications that the storm will strengthen and when it hits the hostile terrain of the Western Caribbean islands, we expect it to emerge from Cuba as a tropical storm,” said South.

From there, he said conditions are favorable through the Florida Straits for the storm to pick up steam again before passing the Keys.

“This far out (Wednesday) it’s still a very fluid situation,” said South. “But this storm is definitely a threat to the Keys. People will see at least tropical storm force winds.”

South said that local residents should be prepared to see weather conditions deteriorate here beginning Sunday morning and get worse as the day wears on until possible landfall Sunday afternoon or early evening.

County officials have not yet met to discuss what they will do. Resident evacuation isn’t triggered unless the storm is forecast to be a Category 3 or above, although visitors can be asked to leave in lower level storms.

Some government offices have already told their employees to secure important paperwork and facilities before they go home for the weekend in the event the storm does decide to pop the Keys in the chops come Sunday evening.

If the current model forecast holds true, Isaac, in whatever iteration it may be at the time, is slated to cross the Keys from south to north at Cudjoe Key.

Tropical storm force wind is considered over 39 miles per hour and less than 74 miles per hour. Once the winds reach 74 miles per hour, the storm becomes a hurricane.

Even though the beginning of the 2012 hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, has thus far been mild, the National Hurricane Center released a mid-season update two weeks ago that predicted conditions were right for the latter half of this season to heat up.

This season got off to the fastest start in history with four named storms forming before July 1, but has since tapered off. But NOAA forecasters predict six to 11 more named storms this season, with three to six of those becoming hurricanes and as many as three of those becoming major storms with winds over 110 miles per hour.

University of Colorado Meteorologist William Gray, who is recognized as one of the world’s foremost hurricane prediction experts, said in his early season forecast that this year carried a 58 percent probability that a named storm would hit the east coast of the United States, and a 49 percent probability that Florida would be targeted.

The Keys haven’t been targeted by a hurricane since Hurricane Wilma came barreling just north of the island chain, causing significant flood damage with relatively little wind damage, closing businesses and offices for days and leaving some remote areas without power for more than a week.

Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott urged Floridians to be prepared for the coming storm.

“Although Tropical Storm Isaac is still far from Florida’s shores, we are closely tracking the potential for the storm to impact part or all of the state. Florida’s state emergency management team and local emergency teams have been working closely together…I am confident in our preparation and the decision process in place to ensure the safety of both our residents and visitors…,” said Scott in a prepared statement.

“As Florida’s Governor, I’m urging everyone across the state to monitor the storm track, and use the next several days to prepare for a potential storm. As we know, storms this far from land are still unpredictable and everyone should be vigilant and prepared.”

“Everyone out there should be monitoring Tropical Storm Isaac closely,” said Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Becky Herrin. “Make sure you have a hurricane plan for yourself and your family and make sure you stock up on all the important things like water, canned goods and medicine just in case. It is extremely important for everyone to heed the advice given by the local office of Emergency Management.”

According to County Administrator Roman Gastesi, the county is dusting off its hurricane procedures plan and met Thursday afternoon to discuss where staff is in relation to that plan.

“If we get the word that it will be a Category 1 storm, we will ask the visitors to leave and we will open the shelters for anyone who wishes to use them,” said Gastesi.

He says that the forecast track and intensity models become very important in the two days leading up to landfall.

“We have to plan for at lest one category higher just so we’re ready if the storm changes its mind and comes in stronger,” said Gastesi.

Though he doesn’t anticipate a wholesale evacuation call, he said anyone wanting information about the storm or shelters or plans, can call the county’s information hotline at 800-955-5504.

“We’ve already talked to our debris contractor and touched base with the special needs directory,” he said. “Right now, everything is on track.”

He says it’s too early to say if county offices will be closed Monday in the storm’s aftermath.

“If we have sustained tropical storm force winds, the busses won’t roll untl that stops,” he said. “If we have sustained winds all day, we probably won’t open offices. But if we have dissipating winds early Monday, there’s a chance our doors will be open.”

He said if anyone has urgent business with the county they can conduct on Friday, they probably should.

“Monday will be a coin toss for everyone at this point.”

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