Thursday, October 14, 2010

Phew! 16 storms this season, but yet again Florida in the clear

Another hurricane, another escape for Florida.

The effects of Tropical Storm Paula, or whatever remains of it after crossing the mountains of Cuba overnight Thursday, weren’t expected to linger long.

“It will be drying out quickly,” said Bill Cottrill, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Key West, where the chance of rain for Friday was put at 40 percent. In Miami-Dade, there was only a 20 percent chance of scattered showers.

The rain chances for the Lower and Middle Keys on Friday are 40 percent. For Miami-Dade and Broward, there is a 20 percent chance of scattered showers.

Paula, the 16th named storm and ninth hurricane of a busy season, weakened at just the right time. Its winds, which had topped 100 mph, continued to drop in the hours before it made landfall around noon Thursday on the northwestern coast of Cuba near Puerto Esperanza, where a top gust of 68 mph was recorded.

Though the storm was small, drenching downpours covered much of the island. As Paula approached, Havana’s Jose Marti Airport reported steady 23 mph winds, gusts to 37 mph and heavy rain and “towering cumulus clouds.” Cuban media reported no significant damage, however, chalking up Paula as a “good news storm’’ because it helped ease drought conditions.

At 5 p.m., the National Hurricane Center reported the storm was 40 miles southwest of Havana, with sustained winds down to 60 mph. For the Lower and Middle Keys, which had been under a tropical storm watch, it was just another blustery, drizzly day — punctuated by sporadic stronger thunderstorms.

Cottrill said he expected some areas of the Keys would see up to three inches of rain before Paula’s fringe fades away — likely by Friday afternoon.

“It’s not a downpour,” he said. “It’s not going to cause any flooding of significance.”

Still, Paula made for dangerous boating weather — particularly offshore south of Key West, where the forecast was for seas of eight feet. Monroe County took no special steps in preparation for the storm but with Key West just 90 miles from Cuba, marine warnings and a tropical storm watch made sense, Cottrill said.

“It was close enough to the Keys where it warranted us keeping a very close eye on it,” he said. “It may have been a little bit too cautious but we’d rather be safe than sorry.”

On its projected track, Paula would travel along Cuba’s mountainous spine, which forecasters expected would gradually continue the weakening started by strong wind shear and dry air. By Saturday, it was expected to dissolve into a disorganized mass of storms and dip south as it approached the southern Bahamas as a mass of thunderstorms.

Forecasters expected the storm to produce from two to four inches of rain in western and central Cuba, with 10 inches possible in spots. Paula could also produce from two to four feet of storm surge as well as large waves.

-- CURTIS MORGAN, Miami Herald

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