Two tropical systems could become almost simultaneous threats to the U.S. Gulf Coast early next week. They could even get sucked into an odd dance around each other. Or they could fall apart as they soak the Caribbean and Mexico this weekend.
Tropical Storm Laura and a depression that is likely to become Tropical Storm Marco have such bad and good environments ahead of them that their futures were not clear Friday. Computer forecast models varied so much that some saw Laura becoming a major hurricane nearing the U.S., while others saw it dissipating.
If both storms survive the weekend, Laura is forecast to head toward the central Gulf Coast around Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle, while the other system aims at Texas. The National Hurricane Center’s late Friday afternoon forecast pushed both farther west and slowed Laura’s track.
“A lot of people are going to be impacted by rainfall and storm surge in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Joel Cline, the tropical program coordinator for the National Weather Service. “Since you simply don’t know you really need to make precautions.”
Two hurricanes have never appeared in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, according to records going back to at least 1900, said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. The last time two tropical storms were in the Gulf together was in 1959, he said.
Because the hurricane center slowed Laura’s entrance into the Gulf and moved its track westward, the two storms are now forecast to be together in the Gulf on Tuesday, just before the weaker western storm smacks Texas with Laura making landfall a bit less than a day later.
The hurricane center on Friday issued tropical storm warnings for the Northern Leeward Islands and Puerto Rico. Laura was forecast to smack Puerto Rico on Saturday morning, go over or near the Dominican Republic and Haiti late Saturday and Cuba on Sunday.
Laura, which set a record for the earliest 12th named storm of a season, was centered late Friday afternoon about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Antigua, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph). It was heading west at 17 mph (28 kph).
The hurricane center also issued a tropical storm warning and hurricane watch for part of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula because the other storm system, called Tropical Depression 14, was predicted to strengthen.
On Friday afternoon, it was centered about 255 miles (415 kilometers) southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, with 35 mph (55 kph) winds. It was headed northwest at 13 mph (20 kph).
If the two storms make it, they could be crowded in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time Tuesday about 550 miles apart. That would leave open some weird possibilities, including the storms rotating around each other in a tropical two-step, pulling in closer to each other, nudging each other, weakening each other or — far less likely — merging.
The last time two storms made landfall in the United States within 24 hours of each other was in 1933, Klotzbach said.
It seems fitting for 2020 to have this type of twin threats, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
“Of course, we have to have two simultaneously land-falling hurricanes,” McNoldy said. “It’s best not to ask what’s next.”
On Friday morning, a hurricane-hunting airplane found Laura’s center to be dozens of miles farther south and better formed than satellite images showed. That triggered a shift in the forecast track, putting Caribbean islands more at risk and an upgrade to tropical storm status.
If Laura goes over land, Puerto Rico and the mountains of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba could tear it apart and not make it much of a threat to the mainland United States, meteorologists said. But if it misses or skirts land, it could head into warm waters conducive to strengthening as it approaches Florida, meteorologists said.
With competing scenarios, the hurricane center is forecasting a middle range for Laura of a weak hurricane heading into the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Officials in the Florida Keys, which Laura might pass over on its route into the Gulf, declared a local state of emergency Friday and issued a mandatory evacuation order for anyone living on boats, in mobile homes and in campers. Tourists staying in hotels should be aware of hazardous weather conditions and consider altering their plans starting on Sunday, Monroe County officials said in a news release.
Meteorologists said Tropical Depression 14 has a better chance of surviving its early land encounter, then strengthening to a minimal hurricane over warm water, but the hurricane center was forecasting it to weaken before it reaches the U.S. Gulf Coast because of decapitating high winds.
Associated Press reporter Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this report.