Aug. 23--Despite the threat of twin storms on the horizon-- one already leaving a trail of flooding and death in the Caribbean -- Florida appeared likely to escape with little more than a side-swipe of strong winds and a few inches of rain in the lower Keys.
The Gulf Coast may not be as lucky. The National Hurricane Center on Sunday expected the dual storms to wallop the coastlines of Louisiana and Texas mere days apart -- starting with Hurricane Marco on Tuesday and Tropical Storm Laura, expected to strengthen to at least a category 2, on Wednesday.
As of Sunday, Laura had already killed at least thirteen people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, left more than a million Dominicans without power and caused mudslides in Puerto Rico. It was just beginning to pound the southeastern tip of Cuba on Sunday afternoon and is expected to strengthen considerably as it fuels up on the steamy waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
"Although not explicitly shown, Laura could threaten the northwestern Gulf coast near major hurricane strength," forecasters warned.
The NHC's forecasts throughout the day reflected a growing danger for the Gulf Coast and a lessening one for Florida. The tropical storm watch for Florida Bay and the Keys north of Craig Key was discontinued as of the 5 p.m. update, and Monroe County pulled back its mandatory evacuation orders for residents of mobile homes and boats Sunday morning.
Tropical Storm Laura
Tropical Storm Laura spent Sunday crossing the gap between Haiti and Cuba, and those warm waters helped strengthen the quick-moving storm. Sunday afternoon, its maximum winds climbed from 50 mph to 60 mph.
It also kept to the southern end of Hispaniola on Saturday, avoiding serious impacts from the hurricane-shredding mountains on the island while doling out tremendous amounts of rain that caused flash flooding around the island. On Sunday evening, Laura appeared poised to follow a similar track through Cuba, staying mostly over the warm waters to the south of the island.
"If the storm stays along the southern coast or just offshore, the environment of warm water and low vertical wind shear could allow for some slight strengthening, but little overall change in intensity is indicated during the next 24 hours," forecasters wrote.
After it clears Cuba Tuesday morning, Laura is expected to rapidly strengthen to a high-level category 2 hurricane before making landfall somewhere in Texas or Louisiana Wednesday evening.
As of 8 p.m., Laura was 30 miles west of Guantanamo, Cuba and headed west-northwest at 21 mph.
Like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Cuba is expected to see four to eight inches of rain, with a full foot in some places.
The forecast track for Laura shows mainland Florida outside its path and only a portion of the Florida Keys in the cone. Although tropical-storm-force winds extend 140 miles from the center, mainly to the north, mainland South Florida has a low chance of seeing serious winds.
"The chance for sustained Tropical Storm conditions has become less likely," the National Weather Service in Miami said Sunday.
The weather center said Sunday afternoon that there's about a 5 to 10% probability that the Gulf Coast and far southern Miami-Dade County will experience tropical-storm-force winds, defined as sustained winds of up to 73 mph. For the rest of South Florida, the chances are 5%.
The chances are closer to 18% in Key West, according to the hurricane center.
Despite the chance for rough weather, in Key West, many locals went to work or spent a day off at the beach or around the house to escape the muggy, hot weather and bright sunshine.
Those who live on boats, though, were preparing for severe weather.
"Basically getting all the ropes tied down and helping all the neighbors," said Shannon Gaytan, who lives on a 38-foot trawler at the Safe Harbor Marina on Stock Island.
Gaytan, 57, a Virginia Beach native who's been in the Keys for 20 years, said he will be ready for 40 to 50 mph winds.
"We're going to be cool," Gaytan said. "I'll be on the bow drinking a beer and watching it come in."
Residents in the Upper Keys -- Key Largo and Islamorada -- seemed unphased Sunday morning. Oceanfront restaurants were doing brisk business.
Mike Gunetti was walking with friends after grabbing a bite to eat. He's from Castle Rock, Colorado, but was raised in New Orleans and survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He said even if Tropical Storm Laura poses more of a threat, he'd still come to the Keys.
"One-hundred percent hell yes," Gunetti said. "You can still hang out at the bars and restaurants. I'm from New Orleans, so we're used to the storms."
Hurricane Marco might stay out at sea a little longer before making landfall, the hurricane center said in the 5 p.m. update. That might slow a landfall down to Tuesday, when the storm has weakened to a tropical storm.
"There has been a major shift in the track guidance beyond Monday morning, and the majority of the forecast models now keep Marco offshore of the northern Gulf Coast for the next few days rather than moving it inland over Louisiana Monday afternoon," forecasters wrote.
That shift wasn't completely reflected in the latest track from the hurricane center because forecasters said they want to wait to see if the next round of spaghetti models also follows that pattern. As of 8 p.m, the track still indicated that Marco may begin a westward scrape along the Louisiana coast Monday night as a hurricane weakening to a tropical storm.
At 8 p.m. Sunday, Marco was about 180 miles southeast the mouth of the Mississippi River. The storm was headed north-northwest at 13 mph.
It will likely approach the Gulf Coast as a category 1 with 75 mph winds, although the models don't quite agree on where exactly the storm will make landfall in Texas or Louisiana. Wherever it lands, the storm is expected to bring dangerous and life-threatening storm surge as high as six feet from Morgan City, Louisiana to Ocean Springs, Mississippi including Lake Borgne.
A gradual turn toward the west with some slowing down was expected after Marco moves inland on Tuesday.
Tropical-storm-force winds extended up to 105 miles from the center, and hurricane-force winds extended 15 miles from the center.
Watches/Warning for tropical storms Laura, Marco
-- Tropical storm warnings remain in effect for the entire coast of Haiti, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac as well as the Cuban provinces of Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Ciego De Avila, Sancti Spiritus, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos, Matanzas, Mayabeque, La Habana, Artemisa, Pinar del Rio, and the Isle of Youth.
-- A tropical storm watch is in effect for the Florida Keys from Craig Key to Key West and the Dry Tortugas
-- Hurricane warning remains in effect for Morgan City, Louisiana to the mouth of the Pearl River.
-- A Tropical Storm Warning has been issued from Cameron to west of Morgan City, Louisiana.
-- Storm Surge warnings in effect for Morgan City Louisiana to Ocean Springs Mississippi, including Lake Borgne.
-- Storm Surge Watch in effect from the Sabine Pass to Morgan City, Louisiana; Ocean Springs Mississippi to the Mississippi/Alabama border and Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas.
-- Hurricane Watch in effect for Intracoastal City, Louisiana to west of Morgan City. Watch also in effect Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Maurepas and metropolitan New Orleans.
-- A tropical storm warning is in effect from the mouth of the Pearl River to the Mississippi/Alabama border. Warning also in effect for Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Maurepas, metropolitan New Orleans and Cameron to west of Morgan City.
-- Tropical Storm Watch in effect from the Mississippi/Alabama border to the Alabama/Florida border.
Miami Herald staff writers David Goodhue and Gwen Filosa contributed to this report.
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