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Forecasters keeping close watch on disturbance bringing rain to Tampa Bay

A dense mass of thunderstorms in the southern Gulf of Mexico appears more and more likely to develop into a tropical system over the weekend, and experts say it's hard to predict what it might do next.

With projections pointing the system every which way — from northwest toward Texas to the northeast across Florida — experts say it will take time to figure out what the trough might do.

No matter what, Florida will get buckets of rain.

Meteorologists have predicted up to 4 inches of rain for the Tampa Bay area through the weekend, while much of the rest of the state also will likely get a good dousing.

The National Hurricane Center said the broad area of low pressure over the south-central Gulf of Mexico was producing a line of storms stretching from the northwestern Caribbean to southern Florida.

The system has a 70 percent chance of developing into a tropical cyclone by Saturday, according to the NHC.

Strong wind shear in the region could prevent much strengthening.

But that could all change by Sunday.

Westerly winds are expected to die down, and the warm gulf water temperatures will encourage further development, experts said.

"It's a game of wait-and-see at this point," said National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen.

If the system were to turn into a tropical storm, it would become Debby, the fourth named storm of the season, which began June 1.

Some models show the system developing into a tropical storm and move it west toward Texas.

Others indicate that as the disturbance reaches waters off Florida's southwest coast this weekend, it could be dragged to the northeast by another low off the U.S. East Coast.

Under that scenario, the storm could be pulled across North Florida on Sunday and re-emerge off the coast of South Carolina by Monday.

Floridians need not panic, said Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist of Weather Underground.

"There won't be a lot of time for it to become strong," Masters said. "Even if all the conditions were right and it took a turn toward Florida, I would be really surprised if this were a hurricane by the time it's crossing the peninsula."

The Tampa Bay area has a 70 percent chance of rain today and about a 60 percent chance into the weekend, according to Bay News 9. Forecasters predict the downpours will come in waves.

Meanwhile, in the Atlantic Ocean, Tropical Storm Chris became the season's first hurricane, but was downgraded later Thursday to a tropical storm. Chris was moving northeast at 20 mph and is no threat to land.

Tampa Bay residents should not be surprised by all the early-season activity, said Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay.

It's not unusual for June storms to form in the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean Sea, he said. And the area has already had a close call.

"Beryl came very close to hitting us," Clay said. "We shouldn't ever be in any type of situation where people wait till the last minute to prepare."

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com.

Forecasters keeping close watch on disturbance bringing rain to Tampa Bay 06/21/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012 9:35pm]
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