The 5 p.m. Sunday five-day forecast track for Tropical Storm Ernesto from the National Hurricane Center.
A graphic posted Sunday afternoon at sfwmd.gov shows various computer models for Tropical Storm Ernesto.
PINELLAS COUNTY - Gov. Jeb Bush signed an executive order Sunday afternoon declaring a state of emergency as forecast tracks continue to show Ernesto headed toward the state.
Mandatory evacuations of visitors and non-residents in the Florida Keys began Sunday afternoon, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection closed all state parks in Monroe County.
The governor's emergency order was prompted because Sunday's storm models show the eye of the storm coming to within 90 miles of Key West on Tuesday night and then into the Tampa Bay or Nature Coast region as a Category 2 or 3 storm on Thursday afternoon.
The executive order said Hurricane Ernesto was likely to produce heavy rainfall, storm surge, life-threatening flash floods and lightening over a widespread portion of the state.
The declaration of emergency allows the preparation of special equipment, personnel and other resources that may be needed in the threatened communities for severe weather caused by Hurricane Ernesto.
Mike Stone with the state Emergency Operations Center said personnel were currently operating at Level 2 or partial activation. He said staff was currently monitoring the situation and would begin making any necessary preparations on Monday. Clearance times and vulnerable populations data was being reviewed.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, the National Hurricane Center announced that Ernesto had weakened to a tropical storm; however, forecasters said it could regain hurricane strength after moving away from southwestern Haiti and before it reached the south coast of Cuba on Monday morning.
A hurricane watch was issued for all of the Florida Keys from Ocean Reef to the Dry Tortugas. A hurricane watch means that hurricane conditions are possible within the watch area within about 36 hours.
The NHC said additional hurricane watches could be issued for portion of the Florida Peninsula on Sunday night.
At 5 p.m., the center of the storm was very near the southwestern tip of Haiti and about 150 miles west-southwest of Port Au Prince Haiti and about 160 miles south-southeast of Guantanamo Cuba.
Ernesto was moving toward the northwest at about 8 mph and expected to move away from southwestern Haiti tonight and be near the southern coast of eastern Cuba by Monday morning.
The latest reports from an Air Force hurricane hunter plane said that maximum sustained winds had decreased to near 60 mph with higher gusts.
According to the latest NHC discussion, Haiti's highly mountainous terrain disrupted the storm's circulation, causing its weakening to a tropical storm. Meteorologists said it was possible that the storm could regain hurricane strength as it moved over waters southwest of the Windward Passage. Wind patterns are favorable for additional strengthening.
Ernesto is expected to weaken again as it passes over eastern Cuba on Monday morning. Forecasters said the storm most likely would regain its strength when it emerged into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday afternoon.
"Because it is not certain how much additional disruption of the circulation will occur due to the influence of land during the next couple of days, there is more than the usual amount of uncertainty in this wind speed forecast," the NHC said.
However, it was still possible that the storm could make landfall on the Florida peninsula as a Category 1 or 2 hurricane.
The official forecast track has shifted slightly to the east, which could be good news for residents of Tampa Bay. The latest projected landfall position is slightly south, closer to Charlotte Harbor than the 11 a.m. forecast track. The projected forecast track after landfall is now slightly east of Tampa Bay.
However, the NHC still stresses that it is too early to predict landfall and computer models still show some disagreement. Forecasters said it was fairly certain that the storm would continue to track northwestward for the next two days. After that time, the steering pattern could cause the storm to turn north.
The 5 p.m. tracking map leans a little to the left of the latest computer model consensus, "mainly out of respect for the usually reliable GFDL model," the NHC said.
State officials urge Floridians to finalize family and business disaster plans and supply kits as soon as possible and be prepared to act if the storm threatens. For more information on hurricane preparations, visit www.floridadisaster.org or Tampa Bay Newspaper's Online Hurricane Guide.
What a difference a year can make
On Aug. 22, 2005, the National Hurricane Center announced that tropical depression 12 had formed, and Floridians were urged to keep a close eye on the weather. At the time, no one could know the depression would grow into a monster hurricane named Katrina.
Katrina made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7 p.m. Aug. 25, 2005 between Hallandale Beach and North Miami Beach. Wind speeds were reportedly 80 mph with higher gusts. After traveling across southern Florida, the storm strengthened to a Category 5 and finally made a second landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on Aug. 29, 2005 near Plaquemines Parish, La.
Katrina devastated a large portion of the Gulf coast from Louisiana to Florida Panhandle. Recovery efforts are still ongoing.
Despite predictions for another busier than usual season, only five tropical storms have formed thus far. Ernesto is the first hurricane of the season. Debby was downgraded to a tropical depression on Saturday afternoon.
At this time last year, 12 tropical depressions had formed; ten had grown into named tropical storms and three into hurricanes.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its mid-season forecast on Tuesday, Aug. 8. William M. Gray, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University and head of the Tropical Meteorology Project, and Philip J. Klotzbach, project member and research associate at Colorado State University, issued updated predictions on the season's activities on Thursday, Aug. 3.
According to Gray and Klotzbach's latest predictions, the season could include up to 15 named storms - down two from the April forecast of 17. NOAA predicts 12 to 15 - down from 13 to 16.
Gray and Klotzbach predict that seven hurricanes could form - down from nine forecast in April forecast. NOAA forecasts seven to nine - down from eight to 10. The number of intense hurricanes also was downgraded from five to three by Gray and Klotzbach. NOAA predicts that three to four Category 3 or above hurricanes could form this season. The average number from 1950-2000 was 9.6 named storms, 5.9 hurricanes and 2.3 intense hurricanes.
The peak of the hurricane season is mid-August through the end of October. The season ends on Nov. 30
Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale
Tropical Storm - Winds 39-73 mph
Category 1 Hurricane - winds 74-95 mph (64-82 kt) No real damage to buildings. Damage to unanchored mobile homes. Some damage to poorly constructed signs. In addition, some coastal flooding and minor pier damage. - Examples: Gaston 2004, Irene 1999 and Allison 1995
Category 2 Hurricane - winds 96-110 mph (83-95 kt) Some damage to building roofs, doors and windows. Considerable damage to mobile homes. Flooding damages piers and small craft in unprotected moorings may break their moorings. Some trees blown down. - Examples: Frances 2004, Isabel 2003, Bonnie 1998, Georges (Fla. and La.) 1998
Category 3 Hurricane - winds 111-130 mph (96-113 kt) Some structural damage to small residences and utility buildings. Large trees blown down. Mobile homes and poorly built signs destroyed. Flooding near the coast destroys smaller structures with larger structures damaged by floating debris. Terrain may be flooded well inland. - Examples: Katrina, 2005, Jeanne and Ivan, 2004, Keith 2000