Tropical Storm Hermine’s track shifts west, “distinct possibility of hurricane”

Update 8 p.m.: Tropical Storm Hermine has strengthened slightly, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The storm has maximum sustained winds of 50 mph, and has moved slightly to the northeast of its position at 5 p.m., with an estimated speed of 8 mph.

Hurricane and tropical-storm watches and warnings remain posted for parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Update 5 p.m.:  Tropical Storm Hermine’s forecast track has shifted slightly west with a tropical storm warning and hurricane watch extended to Destin.

The storm, which has winds of about 45 mph, is 325 miles south-southwest from Apalachicola and 350 miles west-southwest of Tampa.

National Hurricane Center forecasters said Hermine is better organized on satellite images and that there is a “distinct possibility that Hermine could become a hurricane before landfall.”

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Update 2 p.m.: The National Hurricane Center says the depression in the Gulf of Mexico has gained tropical storm strength and is now Tropical Storm Hermine (her-MEEN).

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As of the 2 p.m. advisory, the storm has maximum sustained winds of 40 mph and is moving north at 2 mph. Tropical storm force conditions could be felt in the Big Bend region of Florida as early as Thursday afternoon.

Check The Palm Beach Post’s interactive storm tracking map. 

The decision to upgrade the storm was made after NOAA Hurricane Hunters investigated this afternoon.

The minimum central pressure is 1000 mb and tropical storm force winds extend out up to 105 miles.

The center of Tropical Storm Hermine is located about 415 miles west-southwest of Tampa and 395 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola.

While the system is a minimal tropical storm, it is expected to reach the Big Bend area of Florida with winds of about 60 to 65 mph. NHC forecasters said they are not ruling out the possibility of a Hermine gaining hurricane strength by the time landfall occurs.

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Hurricane watches and tropical storm warnings are up for portions of the Gulf coast.

Forecasters have been wrestling with this system since August 18 when if first appeared as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa.

If Hermine gains hurricane strength, it would be the first hurricane to hit Florida in more than a decade. The last Florida hurricane was 2005’s Wilma.

But some experts don’t think it will gain the mantle of hurricane.

Hugh Willoughby, a retired 27-year veteran of NOAA’s hurricane division and a professor at Florida International University, said the hurricane watch was probably issued in an abundance of caution.

“What they are saying to people in North Florida is that maybe this doesn’t look too threatening, but don’t get complacent,” Willoughby said. “They are being honest. The hurricane center is really good at this but recognize that they could be wrong.”

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Update 11 a.m.: Tropical depression nine is spinning nearly stationary about 415 miles west-southwest of Tampa with sustained winds of 35 mph.

National Hurricane Center forecasters said they expect it to strengthen today on a path that continues to head toward Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Previous story: Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency in 42 Florida counties in advance of tropical depression nine.

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The counties, which do not include Palm Beach County, are ones that are in the cone of uncertainty published by the National Hurricane Center.

National Hurricane forecasters aren’t taking chances with the meandering tropical depression nine, saying this morning the system could become a weak hurricane before landfall.

The tropical cyclone, which has defied predictions since it was first recognized more than a week ago, is officially forecast to reach 65-mph winds before hitting in Florida’s Big Bend region late Thursday and early Friday morning. It could then briefly ramp up to 70 mph after exiting the state into the Atlantic.

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Check The Palm Beach Post’s interactive storm tracking map. 

A Category 1 hurricane isn’t declared until winds reach 74 mph.

A special 8 a.m. update from the hurricane center said the system is still a depression with 35-mph winds. The system is expected to become a tropical storm later today, according to hurricane center forecasters.

But the hurricane center on Tuesday took the unusual step of issuing  hurricane and tropical storm watches for portions of Florida’s Gulf Coast. The tropical storm watches were increased to warnings this morning.

Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said a hurricane watch is issued even if the official forecast is only for a tropical storm, if there is enough uncertainty in the future of a system that will be in an environment favorable for development.

“The hurricane watch, by definition, means winds of hurricane-force would be possible,” he said.

National Hurricane Center forecasters said a few of the computer models had upgraded tropical depression nine to hurricane strength near the coast so the decision was made to issue a hurricane watch.

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“It is important not to focus on the forecast landfall point of this system,” forecasters wrote in a 5 p.m. discussion. “Among other reasons, dangerous storm surge flooding is likely along the coast well to the east and south of the path of the center.”

A hurricane watch is in effect for Anclote River to Indian Pass. A tropical storm warning is in effect for Anclote River to the county line between Walton and Bay counties.

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The National Hurricane has also issued storm surge flooding maps for the first time this year. Areas along the Gulf Coast could see water levels reach up to five feet above the ground if a peak surge occurs at the time of high tide.

As of the 5 a.m. hurricane center update, tropical depression nine was about 405 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola and about 425 miles southwest of Tampa. Its maximum sustained winds are 35 mph and it is moving at just 2 mph toward the north.

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