South Floridians slogged to work and school through a wet and heavy blanket delivered by a massive tropical depression moving on a path that would take it pretty much right up Interstate 95 later Wednesday.
There was standing water in the region but no early reports of widespread flooding. Public schools in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties opened as planned.
At 8 a.m., the National Hurricane Center said the system, tropical depression No. 16, remained disorganized but could still become Tropical Storm Nicole before it crosses the Florida Straits and makes landfall in the Upper Keys, then somewhere in south Miami-Dade County. Around 7 a.m., wind gusts there had reached 40 mph.
But the window for strengthening was brief, forecasters said, and the chief concern remained rain, not wind -- particularly for commuters navigating slick and in some cases, already flooded roads.
Forecasters expected four to eight inches overall, steady for much of the day but coming down in two-inches-an-hour torrents when the system's strongest cells roll through.
Official rainfall totals in Miami, Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale were less than an inch early Wednesday but much of the storm's heaviest rain remained to come.
Tropical storm warnings were posted on Tuesday from Key West to Jupiter. Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Collier counties were also placed under flood watches for a system tracing the same up-from-the Everglades path as two infamous storms that caused tens of millions of dollars in flood damage a decade ago -- Hurricane Irene in 1999 and a ``no-name storm'' a year later.
Felix Garcia, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center, said the system was forecast to move too quickly to deliver that sort of devastating deluge.
``It's definitely going to bring rain and flash-flooding, but nothing compared to those storms,'' he said.
After consulting with the National Hurricane Center and emergency managers, superintendents in both Miami-Dade and Broward decided the roads would be safe enough for school buses and kids.
``We will continue to monitor the storm, but at this time we do not see any reason to close down the schools,'' Broward Superintendent Jim Notter said.
Despite raining throughout the night in the Upper Keys, everything was status quo. School buses were picking up children and U.S. 1, the main highway connecting the island chain, was filled with vehicles going in both directions.
At 8 a.m., forecasters said the center of the depression had been relocated further south over Central Cuba, putting it 150 miles south of Marathon and 230 miles south-southwest of Miami. The system was moving north-northeast at 9 mph but was expected to gradually pick up speed. Top sustained winds remained 35 mph -- still below tropical storm strength -- but they were some 250 to 300 miles from its center.
On the Cuban government news site www.cubadebate.cu, Cuba's chief meteorologist José Rubiera warned that the system would affect Matanzas province overnight, and be felt as far east as Granma, Las Tunas and Ciego de Avila. He warned of lightning, strong winds and high tides along the southern coast that could flood low-lying areas and torrential rain that could affect much of the island.
``It should be noted that in weak systems, such as the tropical storm, the eye of the storm crossing the center of the country is only of secondary importance,'' he wrote.
The broad center of circulation was expected to pass close to or over metropolitan Miami-Dade around mid-Wednesday and then move north into Broward and Palm Beach.
The strongest gusts, forecasters said, were likely to be felt in the Bahamas. Unlike most tropical systems, the strongest winds were at its southeastern fringe, not near its center, Garcia said.
``This is one very peculiar storm,'' he said.
Robert Molleda, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, said coastal residents in South Florida will feel the brunt of the mainland impacts. East winds could hit 34 mph and gusts could top 48 mph. That forecast could change if the system shifts track, he said. A jog to the east and out to sea could reduce winds and rain and one in the opposite direction could increase them.
Water managers lowered canal levels in Miami-Dade County and Broward in preparation, said Susan Sylvester, director of operations for the South Florida Water Management District.
With sparse rain in the past week, Sylvester said South Florida was in a good position to absorb a soaking across the region, including Everglades water conservation areas bordering Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach and in Lake Okeechobee, where high water poses a threat to an aging dike.
``They're all in a favorable position to receive water,'' she said.
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