Ready or not South Florida, rain is coming.
Regardless of whether a tropical wave lurking offshore actually musters the strength to become a more fierce storm, forecasters say the region is in for a soggy, wet weekend, with possible flooding. Thursday the system weakened slightly as it continued to encounter crippling wind shear. But forecasters say there’s still a chance it could find footing in warm waters over the Bahamas and make a powerful landfall in South Florida and the Keys.
“The problem it’s had is a combination of dry air and wind shear. And those are two enemies of a tropical cyclone trying to develop,” said National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. “It’s been fortunate we don’t have something forming.”
Thursday afternoon, a hurricane hunter plane found the storm no longer packed tropical storm force winds as it pushed through the southeastern Bahamas. The messy system still had no defined center in a tangle of thunderstorms. Forecasters also scaled back earlier projections, dropping the odds of a tropical storm forming in five days from an 80 to 70 percent, a slight change that offered little comfort to officials worried that a rapidly intensifying storm would provide little notice.
“If it does spin up on the coast, a warning would be fast,” Feltgen said. “Things could change on short notice.”
Hurricane models have also had trouble forecasting the messy storm, he said. “There isn’t a center of circulation, so what do the models latch on to?”
So what could South Florida see? If no storm forms, heavy rain will still likely drench the state, with dangerous rip currents churning up beaches.
“It may not be an all day rain, but a pretty wet weekend, like a 60 to 70 percent,” said National Weather Service senior meteorologist Stephen Konarik. Areas closest to the path of the storm would also see heavier rain and gustier winds, he said, with the increased risk of flooding.
Even with the slight weakening, worried officials continued making preparations around the state, concerned that a rapidly intensifying storm would provide little time to issue watches and warning usually issued days in advance.
Florida Power & Light activated its emergency response plan Thursday afternoon, getting workers in place and securing extra help from out of state if needed. Even with aggressive efforts to clear trees and brush, a decade without a hurricane could lead to heavy outages from lines downed by vegetation, said president Eric Silagy.
"Given this could be Mother Nature's first wholesale clearing effort in more than a decade due to a relative lack of tropical weather, we fully anticipate whole trees and excess debris, such as branches and palm fronds, to cause power outages,” he said in a statement.
The South Florida Water Management District also began lowering water levels in Miami-Dade and Broward County conservation areas. Water in the vast marshes remains high from record winter rain despite efforts to move more water into the southern Evergades. Staff also began prepping canals, pumps and other flood control features, inspecting key features and checking to ensure pumps had enough fuel to power increased pumping.
Farther north, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers so far has no plans to increase flushing water from Lake Okeechobee to protect the lake’s aging dike. But that could quickly change, bringing unwelcome dirty water to coastal estuaries still recovering from algae blooms that coated the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon with smelly toxic slime over the summer. Dangerous toxin levels have since dropped, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, but testing continues.
“We will continue releases at current rates with the understanding we may need to adjust flows depending on what happens with the weather over the next few days," said acting Operations Division Chief Candida Bronson said in a statement.
In recent days, lake levels have been dropping and Thursday stood at 14.67 feet.
Gov. Rick Scott also issued a statement urging residents to get ready in advance, talked with the state’s Emergency Management chief and, with the storm’s arrival possibly disrupting Tuesday’s election, pushed early voting.
“In Florida, we must always be prepared for a storm before landfall,” he said.
While no watches or warnings have been issued, forecasters say parts of Hispaniola, the Turks and Caicos, and the southeastern and central Bahamas should be on the lookout for flash floods and mudslides triggered by heavy rain and winds during the next couple of days.
Across the Caribbean, the storm was leaving a messy trail. The National Meteorological Office in the Dominican Republic issued urban flooding and flash flood warnings. Because of high winds and waves, the office also advised small and medium boats along the northern part of the island and the Mona Channel coast to remain in port.
Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency is closely watching rivers, especially in the north where rain fell overnight. Already, a number of rivers are in danger of topping their banks, an official said Thursday.
Islands nearest the storm in the Bahamas had so far also escaped any severe weather, said Capt. Stephen Russell, the head of the Bahamas' National Emergency Management Agency.
Forecasters are also keeping an eye on faraway Gaston, which weakened from a hurricane overnight to a tropical storm but is expected to regain strength Saturday. Located about 1,100 miles east, northeast of the Leeward Islands at 6 p.m. Thursday, the storm is expected to stay well clear of the U.S. coast, making a sharp turn to the north early next week.
Staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.