Don’t look now, but there is a storm brewing in the southwest Caribbean Sea that the National Hurricane Center is projecting will move north into the Gulf of Mexico, then very possibly make landfall along the Florida Panhandle as a Category 1 hurricane this weekend.
The Columbus area, along with eastern portions of Alabama and much of Georgia, are in the storm’s current tracking cone, including Atlanta and its international airport. Those area residents who have property or other interests — including vacations — along the panhandle from Pensacola to Destin to Panama City Beach should certainly monitor the situation.
The 5 p.m. Wednesday projected track of the storm, now being called “Tropical Depression Sixteen,” has it reaching the Gulf Coast about 2 p.m. Sunday with hurricane-force winds just over the 73 mph wind maximum of a tropical storm.
The current tracking cone — which could shift in the next couple of days — shows the center of the storm moving between Columbus and Albany, Ga., possibly on Sunday and into Monday. The cone of possibilities stretches to the west in Birmingham, Ala., east to Savannah, Ga. The general direction, for now, would take the storm toward the Carolinas, likely much weaker by then.
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“At this point, if the track does verify, we would be looking at some heavy rains and some gusty winds,” said Carly Kovacik, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, Ga. “Once it makes landfall in Florida, it will weaken.”
Kovacik said there remains plenty of uncertainty for the tropical depression that is projected by the Miami, Fla.-based National Hurricane Center to become a tropical storm within the next 12 to 24 hours. It has formed off the coast of Nicaragua, with expectations that it will possibly pass near or over the Yucatan Peninsula area of Mexico before heading north toward the U.S.
The latest cauldron of storm trouble follows three hurricanes that have hammered the U.S. and its Caribbean territories this year. Those were Hurricane Harvey along the Texas coast and Hurricane Irma, which struck south Florida before moving up the peninsula and slamming the entire state of Georgia with high winds and heavy rains. And, of course, Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico two weeks ago, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Kovacik conceded there appears to be no rest for the storm weary with the latest weather phenomenon, which looks to become Tropical Storm Nate and likely Hurricane Nate.
“We thought we were done,” she said. “But hurricane season does run through the end of November. It’s typical to see systems still developing into October.”
For Columbus-area residents, that would include memories of Hurricane Opal, a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall near Pensacola, Fla., as a Category 3 on Oct. 4, 1995. That storm raged north through Alabama, bringing very high winds and torrential rains to the Chattahoochee Valley as destructive outer bands of the hurricane moved over the local area.
Informed Wednesday that a possible hurricane was headed for the Gulf Coast this weekend, Georgia Power spokesman Robert Watkins at first simply said: “Say it ain’t so.”
Watkins, recalling Irma and the hurricane and tropical storm winds and rains that struck the state of Georgia on Sept. 11, said that the power company, owned by Atlanta-based Southern Company, has a storm center in the state capital. It keeps an eye on possible nasty weather that can knock out electricity to homes and businesses.
“As it gets closer and we see what we’re up against, we’ll start moving resources in from other areas toward this area,” Watkins said of Georgia Power’s overall strategy with fierce weather. “Depending on how bad it looks like it’s going to be, we’ll have people come in from the areas of the state that are not going to be hit.”
Irma was a major exception for most hurricanes and tropical storms in that it took aim at all of Georgia, leaving nearly a million customers across the state without electricity in its wake due to extremely high winds. The damage was so bad that power crews from Canada drove down to assist with getting power back up, he said, with 95 percent of customers restored within three days.
In the Columbus area, Watkins said, there were more than 33,000 customers without electricity at the height of the storm. He said about 95 percent of those local residents without power were back on within 48 hours. Overall, Columbus and the surrounding area was spared the brunt of Irma, with it weakening somewhat and its rougher winds farther to the east.
“It was a herculean effort,” Watkins said. “Everybody dropped what they were doing in their usual job and went into storm mode and worked around the clock, really, to get people back on, and then they moved to other places that had been hit. We felt really good about the response.”