Once it gets past the Bahamas, a storm tumbling across the Caribbean toward Florida risks getting worse, fast.
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, the storm was located about 100 miles north of Puerto Rico and remained disorganized with no clear center, even as it pounded the area with gale force winds. Until it becomes better organized, National Hurricane Center forecasters say it’s too soon to say what impacts the storm will have on Florida and the Bahamas.
But Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters warned it could strengthen quickly as it encounters warm water and light wind shear, with Florida possibly feeling its effects by Sunday or early Monday.
“This storm has the potential to become a rapidly intensifying hurricane in 24 hours,” he said. “It’s like a switch gets switched on and it goes boom.”
Hurricane center forecasters gave the system, which would become Tropical Storm Hermine (pronounced her-MEEN) an 80 percent chance of forming over the next five days.
But the storm’s messiness continues to make predicting it difficult.
On Wednesday, two areas were struggling to become the storm’s center, one to the south and one to the north, Masters said. If the southern circulation makes a closed loop and becomes the center, Florida, which has not been hit by a hurricane in a decade, could see a much weaker storm. The storm would likely swing south and encounter Hispaniola’s storm-shredding mountains. A path to the north would take it toward the Bahamas, where wetter conditions and warm ocean temperatures could lead to a more fierce storm.
“It all depends on what happens over the next day because it’s still trying to organize and until it forms a well-defined surface circulation, we don’t know,” Masters said.
Models early Wednesday nearly all aligned crossing Florida.
What’s also far from certain is the potential intensity of the wet storm. Hurricane forecasters warned that strong winds and heavy rain could unleash flash floods and mudslides over parts of the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and the southeastern and central Bahamas over the next two days.
A wet slow storm could also pose big problems for Florida water managers, who have struggled this year with high water in Lake Okeechobee after a record wet winter.
In the spring and summer, dirty lake water flushed into coastal estuaries helped trigger a massive algae bloom along the east coast. Putrid chunks of algae hurt waterside businesses and left some areas closed to swimming.
For now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has no plans to increase water releases to protect the lake’s aging dike, now in the midst of repairs. But operations will depend on the storm, spokesman John Campbell said.
“There’s very little risk that the lake at the current level would fail today. Our concern has always been ... what happens if we get rain that drives it to a higher level,” he said. “The big challenge with managing water in Lake Okeechobee is lake water can come in much faster than we can get it out.”
To lower the risk of the dike failing and provide water to farmers during Florida’s dry season, lake levels are normally kept between 12.5 and 15.5 feet. Anything above 17.25 feet starts to raise concern, Campbell said. At midnight Tuesday, the lake was at 14.67 feet.
The Corps has spent $800 million on repairs since 2001 and is expected to spend another $800 million in coming years. In 2011, work began to repair 32 culverts and construct a 21-mile-long cutoff wall between Port Mayaca and Belle Glade to protect Clewiston and Moore Haven to the south and west.
While that work has helped strengthen weak sections of the dike, others remain vulnerable, Campbell said. Another 6.6 miles of wall still need to be constructed and gaps closed west of Belle Glade, where the lethal 1928 hurricane killed close to 2,000 people, mostly poor black migrant workers.
“Generally, the rule of thumb is water can come in three times faster than we can get it out. It just depends on storm,” he said.
But if the storm powers up quickly, emergency managers may have little time to prepare.
“I don’t think it will happen today or tomorrow,” Masters said, “but as it moves west, conditions improve and I would not be surprised if on Saturday it could go through rapid intensification.”
Forecasters are also keeping an eye on faraway Tropical Storm Gaston. At 5 p.m. Wednesday, Gaston was moving northwest about 16 mph with sustained winds of about 70 mph. Forecasters warn it could strengthen to a hurricane Saturday afternoon as it moves closer to Bermuda.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich