Forecasters warn Floridians to keep an eye on Tropical Storm Ophelia

Hurricane center expects it won't go anywhere soon

September 08, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MIAMI - Get used to that ominous cloud on the radar screen.

Ophelia, which gained a name and tropical storm status yesterday, lurked 80 miles off Cape Canaveral, and forecasters didn't expect it to move far anytime soon. But where it might eventually head remained perplexing.

The National Hurricane Center nudged the official track off the north Florida coast into the open Atlantic Ocean, but it cautioned that the only thing forecasters were sure of was that the entire state of Florida, particularly north Florida, ought to keep an eye on Ophelia for four or five days.

"Right now, it's a very low-confidence forecast," said Eric Blake, a meteorologist with the center in west Miami-Dade County.

And with the storm expected to drift north hugging the coast for several days, there was scant margin for error. Tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph extended 70 miles from Ophelia's center, just short of beaches already battered by roiling waves.

"If it moves a little further westward, it could impact the coast directly," Blake said. "That's why the warnings are up."

Tropical storm warnings were posted from Cocoa Beach to Flagler Beach, meaning winds of at least 39 mph could hit within 24 hours. A storm watch, meaning similar conditions could occur within 36 hours, extended north to the state line at Fernandina Beach.

Squall lines were sweeping sections of the coast, and forecasters predicted 5 to 8 inches of rain along its fringes from central Florida into southeast Georgia.

For the National Hurricane Center, the 15th named storm of a yet another hectic and harrowing hurricane season remained a meteorological puzzle, one with a key piece still three days away - a trough dropping down from the Midwest and Great Lakes.

When it arrives and how deeply it pushes may be the driving force in Ophelia's future track. Otherwise, Blake said, the system remained largely stationary and was expected to meander slightly, slowly north.

"The steering pattern is not quite clear," he said. "There is no strong high to move it northward and nothing really pushing it very quickly in any direction."

For a second day, computer guidance models spit out dramatically different scenarios. Some suggested the storm could cross the peninsula and emerge into the Gulf of Mexico. Others steered it farther out into the Atlantic before potentially looping back toward the coast. Hurricane Jeanne executed a similar circle before striking central Florida last September, but farther south and out into the Atlantic.

The hurricane center's five-day "area of uncertainty" covered a huge area from south Miami-Dade to central North Carolina. With the storm likely to spend more time over warm waters, it also is expected to strengthen, possibly to a low-level hurricane.

In Tallahassee, Florida emergency operations chief Craig Fugate said state officials were preparing for Ophelia to primarily be a hazard for marine interests, with heavy rains and brisk winds that could make beaches and driving dangerous.

Search-and-rescue teams that Florida sent to Mississippi have already returned to respond to Ophelia if needed.

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