Changing Planet

Uncertainty about Tropical Storm Debby’s Path Causing Worries on Gulf Coast

Hurricane forecasters are warning of tropical storm-force winds of at least 35 mph (56 kph) by late Monday from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, but caution that Tropical Storm Debby’s path is very uncertain as it churns through the Gulf of Mexico toward a likely landfall somewhere on the Gulf Coast later this week.

That uncertainty is making it difficult for Gulf Coast residents to prepare for the storm.

“This storm is the worst-case scenario for (the) emergency manager,” said William Wagner III, president of Early Alert Inc., a private company specializing in emergency management consulting and disaster preparation based in Palm City, Florida.

As of 11 a.m. today, Debby’s center was about 300 miles ( about 480 kilometers) south-southeast of Pensacola, Florida. The storm was moving northeast at about 6 mph (10 kph), and its strongest winds were about 60 mph (about 96 kph). The National Hurricane Center’s Sunday morning forecast also said Debby could intensify into a category one hurricane with winds of at least 74 mph (about 119 kph) by Wednesday morning.

Debby’s eventual path will be determined by upper-level winds and weather systems to the north of the storm. Lixion Avila, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said computer models used to forecast Debby’s likely path do not agree on how these systems will affect the storm.

Although the storm advisory as of 11 a.m. today said Debby likely will move westward toward New Orleans, Avila noted that forecasters don’t have a lot of confidence in that forecast. The storm is expected to weaken and not come ashore as a hurricane, but computer models show Debby could make landfall anywhere from Texas to Florida.

And that uncertainty is causing headaches for emergency managers along the Gulf Coast who need advance warning of a storm’s landfall to order evacuation of residents threatened by flooding and high winds.

“If Debby were to take a more northerly track it would eliminate any additional lead-time for decision making,” Wagner said.

Debby is the fourth tropical storm to form since May. Still, seasonal hurricane forecasters have predicted that the 2012 hurricane season — which ends November 30 — will not be quite as busy as recent summers. Forecasters at Colorado State University predicted earlier this month that 13 named storms will form, and those storms will produce five hurricanes with winds of at least 74 mph (119 kph).

Avila cautioned against drawing any conclusions about the latter part of the hurricane season based on activity in the early part of the summer.

“There is no correlation between the number of storms at the beginning of the summer and what could come up later on,” he said.

Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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