Tropical Storm Ian is raising uncertainty for Florida as a small change in track could mean a $30 billion disaster for Tampa or a landfall in a sparsely populated area of the state’s Panhandle next Thursday .
Ian’s maximum sustained winds reached 45 miles per hour, about 300 miles south-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica early Saturday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. The storm could become a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 115 mph making landfall on Florida’s west coast by the middle of next week.
In other recent storms, initial clues seemed to point to Tampa taking a direct hit, only to see them move away over time and hit the Panhandle or central Gulf Coast.
“The concern about the track now is that it’s a very rare track for a storm,” said Adam Douty, a meteorologist at commercial forecaster AccuWeather Inc.
A direct hit on Tampa from a Category 3 hurricane would push a wall of water into Tampa Bay, flooding the city and its suburbs and causing up to $30 billion in loss and damage, said Chuck Watson, disaster modeler from Enki Research. There’s about a 40 percent chance it will hit Tampa and a 45 percent chance it will actually veer further north and spare the city, said Ryan Truchelut, Weather Tiger president of business forecasters.
Part of the problem is Ian himself, Truchelut said. The newly formed storm is still developing its center, and this is crucial information that meteorologists and computer forecast models need to determine where a storm will go.
“The center is jumping,” Truchelut said. “We are in a place of maximum uncertainty; the structure of the storm has not yet been resolved.”
When Ian was first named on Friday, its center appeared to be further north, but Hurricane Hunter jets have since found it to the south, meaning it could take a more westerly path, said Truchelut.
This is potentially a better outcome for Cuba and for Florida. Ian is expected to sweep west of Cuba on Tuesday before hooking up in Florida.
The other factor is the larger weather patterns in the United States, Douty said. A trough of low pressure in the eastern US looks like it will pull Ian north, but this system itself is moving. How and when these pieces come together will also determine where Ian will go.
Truchelut said a westward trend would not only help Tampa, but could also reduce potential impacts to Miami and cities in South Florida, as well as citrus growers across the state.
Ian is the ninth storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. Hurricane Fiona slammed into Nova Scotia early Saturday, knocking out power and dumping a deluge of rain after battering parts of the Caribbean and knocking out power in Puerto Rico.
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