Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:48 AM GMT on September 19, 2005
Florida Keys residents should seriously consider evacuating tonight. If you decide not to, check on Rita's forecasted strength early Monday morning, after the 5am NHC advisory is out. Think about evacuating then.
After reading the 11pm NHC discussion, which reported that the 67 knot winds measured by the Hurricane Hunters was not representative of the general winds in Rita, I am a little less concerned that Rita will intensify to a major Category 3 hurricane as it passes through the Keys Monday night or Tuesday morning. Also, the cloud tops in Rita have warmed a bit in the past few hours, and it appears that Rita is taking a breather from her recent intensification burst.
Still, I don't like what I see. The hurricane hunters found a 40% complete eyewall has formed. The upper level outflow is excellent on the north side, and the storm is over warm 30 - 31C water. I'd give it a 5% chance that Rita will be a Category 3 hurricane passing through the Keys. If I lived in the Keys, I would think real hard about leaving, just in case that 5% chance verifies. The sudden intensification tonight happened the face of about 10 knots of shear, which one can see impacting the SW side of the storm on satellite imagery. If the shear goes to less than 5 knots, which is expected to happen by Tuesday, Rita will intensify very rapidly. Rita will probably be a Category 1 or 2 hurricane when it moves through the Keys Monday night. The Keys can handle a Category 2 hurricane--barely.
The Keys take a full 72 hours to evacuate, and now that New Orleans has been taken out by Katrina, the Keys represent the number one most vulnerable area in the U.S. for serious loss of life from a hurricane strike. Even though the evacuation order has already been given for visitors and tourists, not everyone will be able to make it out if Rita suddenly intensifies tomorrow to a Category 3 status.
The nighmare scenario is what happened during the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which intensified from a tropical storm with 70 mph winds to a Category 5 hurricane with 160 mph winds in just 42 hours as it approached the Keys. Over 400 Keys residents died in the ensuing disaster.
So, if you live in the Keys, get your bag packed. Wake up early tomorrow, and check out the 5am advisory. If Rita is a hurricane by then, consider hitting the road early. But if the roads are totally jammed, it's probably better to ride it out in a sturdy shelter rather than be caught on the 7-Mile Bridge in a hurricane.
While the Keys are likely to escape with a hard but bearable hit from a strengthening Category 1 or 2 hurricane, the Gulf Coast will not be so lucky. There is nothing in the long-range forecast that I can see that will prevent Rita from intensifying into a Category 3 or stronger hurricane. The entire stretch of coast from 500 miles south of Brownsville, Texas to New Orleans is at risk--no one can say with any confidence where Rita will hit this far in advance. Texas is at the highest risk, though, and needs to watch Rita the most carefully.
As for Philippe--which is now a hurricane--we do not need to be concerned with him for at least five days, and probably never. The odds are over 90% that Phillipe will stay out to sea and not affect any land areas except Bermuda.
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