FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A tropical storm warning remained in effect for the U.S. coast from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle on Friday as a weather system in the Gulf of Mexico strengthened and marched north, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The system is still expected to become a tropical depression, with the forecast having it intensifying into Tropical Storm Claudette later Friday. Forecasters expect the storm to make landfall in the early morning hours of Saturday and produce heavy rain and strong winds along a wide area of the coast.
As of 5 p.m., heavy rain and tropical-storm-force winds already had begun to reach parts of the northern Gulf coast, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The hurricane center shifted its tropical storm warning slightly east early Friday. The warning area includes Pensacola on the Florida Panhandle, the coast of Alabama, Mississippi and parts of Louisiana including Lake Pontchartrain and metropolitan New Orleans.
The system has a 90% chance of developing before landfall and will approach the north-central Gulf Coast late Friday or early Saturday and turn northeast after landfall. Maximum winds are at 45 mph, but strengthening is in the forecast through Friday.
As of 5 p.m., the system was located 125 miles south of Morgan City, La. and 270 miles southwest of Mobile Alabama while moving north at 16 mph.
Rainfall totals could fall between 4 and 8 inches and as high as 12 inches in the central Gulf coast starting Friday.
The hurricane center warned of flash, urban and small stream flooding as a result of the heavy rainfall and said river flooding could occur as the storm hits areas with elevated rivers.
Tornadoes could occur across coastal areas of Louisiana starting Friday afternoon, and southern areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama could see tornadic activity from Friday night into Saturday.
Storm surge could reach 2 to 3 feet from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Okaloosa/Walton County Line, Florida, county line and at Lake Borgne, Louisiana, and Mobile Bay, Alabama. Other areas of Louisiana, from Cameron to Morgan City, Vermillion Bay, and Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, and the area between the Mississippi/Alabama and Alabama/Florida borders could see between 1 and 2 feet of storm surge.
“Tropical storm conditions are expected to begin Friday in areas near and well to the east of the center along portions of the central Gulf Coast from Intracoastal City, Louisiana, to the Alabama/Florida border, including New Orleans,” the hurricane center said.
“Although the system will likely become a tropical storm later today or tonight, significant strengthening is not expected due to its broad and asymmetric structure, ongoing west-southwesterly shear, and limited time over the Gulf of Mexico waters.”
Claudette would be the third named storm of the year. The earliest-forming storm with the first letter of ‘C’ was Cristobal last year, which formed on May 30. The average formation of a storm with the first letter ‘C’ is August, according to AccuWeather.
Tropical Storm Ana formed northeast of Bermuda on May 22, and Tropical Storm Bill formed June 14 off the coast of North Carolina.
Tropical Storm Ana marked the seventh consecutive year of a named storm forming before the June 1 start of hurricane season.
Neither Ana nor Bill, which were both short-lived, threatened the United States.
After Claudette the next named storm to form would be Danny. Systems must produce winds of 39 mph or more to gain tropical storm status.