What was once a tropical storm hovering off the Florida coast has turned into Hurricane Rita, as she strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane on Tuesday, lashing the Florida Keys with heavy rain and strong wind. Winds were sustained at 100 mph into Tuesday afternoon.
The storm, which may slam the islands with a storm surge of up to 6 feet, is being watched carefully because forecasters are not sure of its path. As it is forecast to head into the Gulf of Mexico, it may veer toward the areas battered by Hurricane Katrina in recent weeks.
Throughout Monday evening and early Tuesday morning Tropical storm Rita’s winds stayed just below hurricane-force, at 70 mph, but the storm strengthened as morning turned to afternoon.
The National Hurricane Center earlier predicted Rita would hit the Florida Keys at noon Tuesday, but was unsure if it would strengthen before then. At 8 a.m. EDT, Rita was 100 miles east-southeast of Key West, Fla. and on a path to the west-northwest at 15 mph. Tropical Storm Rita’s center was near latitude 23.8 north, longitude 80.4 west.
NHC warned the Keys to expect storm surge flooding of 4 to 7 feet above normal tide levels. It said large and dangerous battering waves are possible in the Florida Keys in areas of onshore flow. Coastal storm surge flooding of 3 to 4 feet is possible along the extreme southeastern Florida coast.
Rita is expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of 2 to 4 inches over the western Bahamas and eastern Cuba. Storm totals of 6 to 8 inches with isolated maximum amounts of 12 inches are possible in the Florida keys and central and northwestern Cuba. storm total accumulations of 3 to 5 inches are possible across the southern Florida peninsula.
A hurricane warning remains in effect for all of the Florida Keys and from Golden Beach on Florida’s southeast coast southward to east Cape Sable, then northward to Chokoloskee on the southwest coast. The hurricane warning remains in effect for the Cuban provinces of Villa Clara, Matanzas, Ciudad de Habana and La Habana.
A tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch are in effect from Deerfield Beach, Fla. southward to north of Golden Beach.
A tropical storm warning remains in effect along the Florida west coast north of Chokoloskee to Englewood.
A tropical storm warning also remains in effect along the Florida east coast from north of Deerfield Beach north to Jupiter Inlet as well as for Lake Okeechobee.
A tropical storm warning remains in effect for the Cuban provinces of Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos and Pinar del Rio.
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