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Tropical storm could lash Tampa Bay area with storm surge, torrential downpours later this week

An enhanced satellite image shows Tropical Depression Nine just north of western Cuba at 11 a.m Monday. [Weather Underground]
An enhanced satellite image shows Tropical Depression Nine just north of western Cuba at 11 a.m Monday. [Weather Underground]
Published Aug. 30, 2016

A tropical system that has toyed with the Tampa Bay area for days gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday, promising an onslaught of heavy rains and tropical storm-force winds later this week.

[10Weather WTSP forecast | Tap to enlarge]

Tuesday morning: Heavy winds, rains approaching Tampa Bay; Tropical Depression Nine could become tropical storm within hours

On Monday, what had been Invest 99L became Tropical Depression Nine, with winds of about 35 mph and gusts of up to 45 mph. It was moving away from Cuba on Monday evening but was expected to make a turn northeast by midweek toward the Big Bend area.

If that course holds, the Tampa Bay region could experience waves of rain, coastal flooding and possible a stray tornado.

The system was forecast to become a tropical storm by early Tuesday and could be named either Hermine or Ian, depending on whether it forms before Tropical Depression Eight, which was in the Atlantic Ocean off the North Carolina coast.

Forecasters predicted the storm would most likely make landfall in the state's Big Bend or Nature Coast areas as early as Wednesday night or Thursday afternoon, packing winds as strong as 65 mph.

Winds in the Tampa Bay area likely will reach only 25 to 35 mph, but the storm could dump anywhere from 5 to 10 inches of rain in some areas areas, said 10Weather WTSP chief meteorologist Jim Van Fleet. Right now, he said, the storm seems to be mirroring the path of Tropical Storm Debby, which caused extensive flooding throughout north and central Florida in 2012.

Most of that flooding was due to rain bands hitting the same areas over and over again, a phenomenon called "training," Van Fleet said. If that happens, neighborhoods in parts of Pasco, Hernando, and northern Pinellas could get upwards of two feet of rain, he said.

"It's like if you think of a train on tracks, the cars follow the same path one after another," Van Fleet said. "With training, when one cell goes through a neighborhood the one behind it will hit the exact same spots, like cars on a train."

The weather service was forecasting rainfall totals of four to 10 inches for the Tampa Bay area, with the higher amounts in Pinellas and western parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties. The hurricane center's 8 p.m. advisory on Monday showed the Tampa Bay area had a 30 to 50 percent chance of seeing tropical storm force winds, which are 39 mph or higher.

Previous coverage: Invest 99L becomes Tropical Depression Nine; expected to develop into a tropical storm on Monday

The State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee plans to elevate it's status to Level Two and activate the State Emergency Response Team on Tuesday. While the potential intensity of the storm is still unknown, Gov. Rick Scott's office warned residents in South Florida, the Florida Keys and Gulf Coast communities to be wary of a significant threat of flash flooding.

Emergency management officials in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties said they were actively monitoring the storm's progress. None of the counties had activated emergency operations centers by Monday evening.

School officials in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties said it was still too early to make decisions on school closures. High winds are a major factor in the decision-making process. Pinellas, for example, doesn't run buses if sustained winds are higher than 30 mph. In Pasco, the upper limit is 40 mph.

"We think we'll have a better idea (on Tuesday)," Pasco schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. "The latest that we would make a decision would be early Wednesday."

County elections supervisors were breathing a collective sigh of relief Monday. If the current forecast holds true, the storm should have little impact on Tuesday's primaries, but officials recommended voters get to the polls sooner than later in case conditions begin to deteriorate Tuesday afternoon and evening.

"We're just encouraging people to get out early and take care of it," said Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer.

Another concern is that lots of rain will attract Zika-carrying mosquitoes in the storm's aftermath.

Tampa officials have more than doubled their stock of mosquito "dunks," doughnut-shaped blocks of larvicide that can be tossed in abandoned swimming pools and other bodies of standing water to kill the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus before they start to fly.

"With expected heavy rains comes standing water," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in a statement Monday. If it's necessary to buy 10,000 more dunks to prevent the Zika virus from gaining a foothold in Tampa, Buckhorn said, "we will do just that."

City officials said last week they had spent about $5,000 to buy 3,600 of the small larvicidal briquettes. They are being given to 45 code inspectors and 38 neighborhood services workers to drop in pools, retention ponds and swales as the workers go around the city.

Be prepared: Need sandbags? Here's a list of locations in the Tampa Bay area

Times staff writers Samantha Putterman and Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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