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Forecasters: Tropical Storm Erika more likely to hit Florida in subdued state

Broken traffic lights and street lamps lay on the ground as the strong winds of Tropical Storm Erika approach Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, Friday. [AP photo]
Published Aug. 29, 2015

TAMPA

Meteorologists may have remained divided Friday evening on the fate of Tropical Storm Erika, but bay area leaders prepared for the worst following a month of historic flooding.

At 11 p.m., National Hurricane Center officials in Miami reported that Erika was moving west northwest at 20 mph and dumping heavy rains across the island of Hispaniola. Erika was forecast to degenerate into a tropical depression that would bring heavy downpours.

Still, "any additional rain will have a big impact on us," said Preston Cook, director of Hillsborough County's Emergency Operations Center. "It's a brutal situation."

Pinellas County officials said they were also in monitoring mode after tracking the storm's movements Friday.

Whatever Erika becomes, "we're preparing for a tropical storm," said Mary Burrell, public information manager for Pinellas County.

Emergency management officials offered the same advice Friday afternoon: Even in a weakened condition, do not dismiss Erika. Buy supplies. Make a plan. Communicate with family members.

The anticipated track for Erika shifted west Friday morning after the storm swept through Puerto Rico and Dominica, where hundreds of homes, bridges and roads were destroyed and least 20 people died.

Dominica's Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a televised address late Friday that "we have, in essence, to rebuild Dominica."

In Puerto Rico, Erika caused more than $16 million in damage to crops, including plantains, bananas and coffee.

Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen, with the National Hurricane Center, characterized Erika as "weak and unorganized." He said Hispaniola's mountainous terrain could flatten Erika and lessen its potency.

"If (Erika) doesn't get past Hispaniola," Feltgen said, "it's a moot point."

Others seemed less convinced.

"The problem is, the core of it hasn't been moving over Hispaniola," said WTSP 10 Weather chief meteorologist Jim Van Fleet. "I think it's highly volatile whether it's going to become a depression."

The latest track shows a greater likelihood that Erika will hit near Naples along the Gulf of Mexico on Monday morning. Earlier Friday, the track showed Erika heading for Miami before making a straight sweep through the spine of Florida and brushing Tampa Bay.

While wind shear should weaken the storm system, Van Fleet said the biggest question is whether Erika continues to travel northwest into the Gulf of Mexico, where slightly warmer waters could serve as "high-octane fuel," potentially restoring its power.

"There are several things that are promising," Van Fleet said of the weather reports. "And there are several things that spell bad news."

Although predictions are hazy, the general consensus revolves around rain. What does that spell for an already-soaked bay area?

Even if Erika hits Florida as a weak tropical storm, it will still deluge much of the state, said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground.

Between 3 and 6 inches of rain could fall in many areas, he said, and Tampa Bay would be especially vulnerable because of the sodden ground. Some local waterways are still at or near flood stage.

"You should look for some of the worst flooding you've seen there over the past five years," Masters said.

In line with the cautionary messages, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Friday in face of the storm.

At a news conference, Scott said no area of Florida is more saturated than Tampa Bay after the massive stretch of rain.

"If we get a lot of rain here, that's probably one of our biggest concerns," said Scott, who also visited Tampa to ensure residents were prepared.

"You need three days of water, three days of food," he said.

Times staff writers Katie Mettler, Michael Majchrowicz, and Steve Contorno contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Zack Peterson at zpeterson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368. Follow @zackpeterson918. Contact Zachary Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @zacksampson.

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