Tropical Storm Nestor could bring dangerous storm surge to Panhandle

Tropical Storm Nestor has officially formed in the Gulf of Mexico, and it has picked up speed and strength as it crosses the warm Gulf waters toward Florida’s Panhandle.

Nestor could make landfall Saturday morning while causing dangerous storm surge, according to the 8 p.m. update from the National Hurricane Center in west Miami-Dade County. Tropical-storm watches and warnings, as well as storm-surge warnings, have been issued in Florida. At 8 p.m., winds were near 60 mph with higher gusts. The hurricane center said strengthening was possible before Nestor reaches the coast.

Nestor is predicted to come ashore in Mexico Beach, which was devastated by Hurricane Michael almost exactly a year ago.

Data from a NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft mission showed the system moving at 22 mph. Tropical-storm-force winds extended 140 miles out from the center, mainly to the northeast and east.

Bay County opened an emergency shelter Friday at noon and encouraged anyone who lives in a mobile home or RV and feels unsafe to seek shelter, but officials said mandatory evacuations are not planned. Mental-health counselors will be at the shelter.

“People here seem, based on what we’re seeing, to be a lot more weather-aware and prepared than they were pre-Michael, so that is a positive that has come out of this ordeal,” said Bay County spokeswoman Valerie Sale. “Folks here are clearly sensitive to any tropical weather in light of Hurricane Michael and the blow it struck to us last year, but this storm is not Hurricane Michael. It’s not going to be as bad as that one was.”

Tropical-storm warnings are in effect from Navarre, Florida to Yankeetown. Florida has storm-surge warnings from Indian Pass to Clearwater Beach, with the Indian Pass area expecting three to five feet of surge and the Clearwater side expecting two to four feet. Tampa Bay is expected to see up to three feet of storm surge.

Northern and Central Florida could see two to four inches of rain, with some areas seeing up to six.

One or two tornadoes could move across Northern and Central Florida on Saturday morning, the hurricane center said.

Nestor, the fourteenth named storm of the season, is expected to cross the Panhandle and weaken over Georgia before moving offshore of the North Carolina coast late Sunday.

Miami Herald Staff Writers Elizabeth Koh and C. Isaiah Smalls II contributed to this report.

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.