Florida Orders Tourist Evacuations Ahead of Another Storm

MIAMI, Florida, September 19, 2005 (ENS) - Weather forecasters are watching two Atlantic storms today - Tropical Storm Rita is closest to the United States while Hurricane Philippe is farther out to sea.

Tropical Storm Rita is expected to strengthen and threaten the Florida Keys and southeast Florida by Tuesday. Mandatory evacuations of non-residents south of the Seven Mile Bridge in the lower Keys began at noon on Sunday.

Hurricane watches have been issued for the entire stretch of the Keys and tropical storm watches have been issued for Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. A Tropical Storm watch was issued late last night for the extreme southwestern Florida peninsula.

Meteorologists believe Rita could become a major hurricane once it blows into the Gulf of Mexico. Northern Mexico or Texas coast could get hit late in the week.

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This display shows the probability, in percent, that Rita's center will pass within 75 statute miles of a location during the 72 hours beginning at 8 pm Sunday, local time. The red circle indicates 100%, orange 50-99%, green 20-49%, and yellow 10-19%. (Map courtesy National Hurricane Center)
At 5 pm Sunday, Tropical Storm Rita was located about 615 miles to the east-southeast of Key West. Maximum sustained winds have increased to near 40 miles per hour, and Rita is moving towards the west near 10 mph. The official forecast keeps Rita on a west or west-northwest motion across the Bahamas today.

Rita will travel over very warm water during the next few days, which strengthens hurricanes, and conditions aloft will become conducive for further strengthening. The official forecast strengthens Rita into a Category 1 hurricane by Tuesday morning as it moves through the Straits of Florida. Heavy rainfall and gusty winds will begin impacting southeast Florida and the Keys in advance of this storm as soon as Monday night.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management advises residents in the Keys and south Florida to finalize family preparations immediately in the event that local officials recommend action to save life and property.

A Hurricane Watch is also in effect for parts of Cuba and the northwest Bahamas, while a Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for the Turks and Caicos Islands and for the southeast and central Bahamas.

The National Hurricane Center places Philippe about 390 miles east of the Leeward Islands. Reports from an Air Force reconnaissance aircraft indicate that the maximum sustained winds have increased to near 75 mph with higher gusts. Additional strngthening is forecast during the next several days, but at this time Philippe is not a threat to the Leeward Islands or any other land masses.

Hurricane Ophelia poured 12 to 15 inches of rain on parts of eastern North Carolina during its slow-motion crossing of that state's coast last week, and New England braced as the storm headed north. But the region was spared as the storm stayed out over the ocean as predicted, and Ophelia headed to Atlantic Canada.

North Carolina Governor Mike Easley said assessing the scope of the damage was difficult because of the storm's slow trajectory, first soaking the state's southeastern coast on Tuesday and then spiraling slowly north and east Wednesday and Thursday off the Outer Banks.

Hurricane researchers at the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) in Miami were pleased Friday as the first unmanned aircraft touched down after a 10 hour mission into Tropical Storm Ophelia, which lost its hurricane strength Thursday night.

The aircraft, called an Aerosonde for the company which designed and operates it, provided the first detailed observations of an area often too dangerous for NOAA and U.S. Air Force Reserve manned aircraft to observe directly - the near-surface, high wind hurricane environment.

Aerosonde

The Aerosonde takes off Friday from NASA Goddard's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (Photo courtesy NASA)
The environment where the atmosphere meets the sea is "critically important in hurricanes," said NOAA, as it is where the ocean's warm water energy is directly transferred to the atmosphere just above it.

The hurricane-ocean interface is where the strongest winds in a hurricane are found and is the level at which most people live.

Observing and better understanding this region of the storm is crucial to improve forecasts of hurricane intensity and structure. Enhancing this predictive capability could save lives and billions of dollars, NOAA said.

Joe Cione, NOAA hurricane researcher at AOML and the lead scientist on this project, said the unmanned aircraft research flights will become routine "in the very near future."

"If we want to improve future forecasts of hurricane intensity change we will need to get continuous low-level observations near the air-sea interface on a regular basis, but manned flights near the surface of the ocean are risky. Remote unmanned aircraft such as the Aerosonde are the only way."

NASA Goddard's Wallops Flight Facility, located on Virginia's Eastern Shore, houses the U.S. base for Aerosonde North America and served as the departure and landing location for this historic flight. The Aerosonde hurricane project is funded by NASA and NOAA Research in order to test this promising new observational tool.

Greg Holland, president of Aerosonde North America and one of the Aerosonde originators, said, "The concept of the Aerosonde as a small, robust unmanned autonomous vehicle, or AUV, arose directly from our need for observations in dangerous areas such as the hurricane surface layer."

The Aerosonde platform that flew into Ophelia was outfitted with sophisticated instruments used in traditional hurricane observation, such as mounted Global Position System dropwindsondes and a satellite communications system that relayed information on temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed every half second in real-time.

The Aerosonde also carried a downward positioned infrared sensor that was used to estimate the underlying sea surface temperature.

All available data were transmitted in near-real time to the NOAA National Hurricane Center and AOML, where the NOAA Hurricane Research Division is located.

Accomplishments from the first flight include detailed documentation of an unsampled region of the hurricane while simultaneously providing the NOAA National Hurricane Center with real-time near surface wind and thermodynamic data from within the storm.