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 , 11:17 AM GMT on September 19, 2005
Rita continues to slowly strengthen. The hurricane hunters have found a steady pressure fall of 2 mb between 3am and 6am EDT this morning, and an increase in winds at their flight level of 5000 feet from 57 to 64 knots. The latest penetration at 7:30am found a pressure of 997 mb and winds of 64 knots at flight level, the same levels as recorded at 6am, so Rita has not intensified in the past two hours.
However, the rate of intensification should quicken later today as the shear over Rita decreases, and Rita will likely be at least a strong Category 1 hurricane or Category 2 hurricane when it passes near Key West Tuesday morning. There is still a small chance Rita could intensify to a Category 3 hurricane when it passes the Keys. The Keys can handle a strong Category 2 hurricane without loss of life--barely. If I lived in the Keys I would stay put today, assuming I had a sturdy shelter to ride out the storm. A 6 - 8 foot storm surge--or a foot higher if Rita hits at high tide--is expected over Key West, and less further north. Even if Rita suddenly strengthens to a Category 3, the winds would not have time to build up a storm surge characteristic of a Cat 3 hurricane until after she passes the Keys. Wind damage would be severe over Key West, however. This all assumes Rita makes a direct hit on Key West. The latest track forecast takes her south of Key West 50 miles or so, sparing the city the winds of the eyewall, and Key West may escape with only light to moderate damage from Rita.
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 Mobile, Alabama is at risk--no one can say with any confidence where Rita will hit this far in advance. Texas and Louisiana are at the highest risk. The current model trend is to recurve Rita earlier and earlier, so residents from Corpus Christi to New Orleans need to be particulary concerned.
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 95% that Phillipe will stay out to sea and not affect any land areas except Bermuda.
I'll have a more in-depth update by noon EDT today.
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