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State of emergency declared for Florida ahead of Tropical Storm Erika

Infrared satellite view of Tropical Storm Erika Friday morning (NOAA)

The state of Florida has declared a state of emergency as of Friday morning, in anticipation of the arrival of Tropical Storm Erika and its potentially hazardous impacts.

A tropical storm landfall or close encounter now appears very likely for south Florida and much of the state may well be affected by the storm’s rainfall.

In the Miami area, tropical storm force winds could begin by early Sunday afternoon and last through late Monday morning.

Even though it’s a long shot that Erika becomes a hurricane prior to landfall, a tropical storm is quite capable of causing flash floods and power outages, as well as coastal erosion and flooding, and the winds can throw around unsecured loose objects.

Tropical storm warnings cover Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and much of the Bahamas.  A tropical storm watch is in effect for the western Bahamas and south Florida should be added later today.

At 11 a.m., the National Hurricane Center’s advisory stated that Erika, centered 65 miles south-southwest of the Dominican Republic, had peak winds of 50 mph. Weakening is expected today due to hostile wind shear and interaction with land over Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti).

Erika’s surface circulation is poised to cross over Hispaniola today where the already disorganized storm may get further shredded apart. Hispaniola is historically a tropical cyclone blender.

However, once the storm center exits Hispaniola and comes out near the eastern Bahamas later tonight, it could possibly begin to reorganize on Saturday when environmental conditions become much more favorable for strengthening.  The sea surface temperatures will be in the 86-89 degrees range, the ocean heat content will also be more than adequate to support a strong cyclone, and the wind shear magnitude will drop off by a third.

So, although there may not be much left of Erika in another 12-18 hours, it will have almost two days to recover in a nearly ideal environment.

The specific intensity forecast for Erika remains uncertain, but most forecast models bring it into south Florida as a moderate tropical storm with peak winds of 40 to 60 mph. There remains an outside chance that Erika could mostly dissipate before reaching Florida or, at the other extreme, attain hurricane intensity.

Erika has a history of producing deadly flooding. On Thursday, its torrential rains unleashed landslides that killed at least four people over the island of Dominica.

[Tropical Storm Erika brings disastrous flooding to the island of Dominica]

As Erika passes over the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the Turks and Caicos islands, and the southeastern and central Bahamas over the next day, it may unload 3 to 6 inches of rain, with isolated totals up to 10 inches, especially in some of the higher terrain. Particularly over the Dominican Republic and Haiti, life-threatening flash flooding and mudslides are possible.

Through early next week, the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center forecasts about 2 to 5 inches of rain over the Florida peninsula. These rains could be very beneficial for south Florida, mired in drought but will be less appreciated in central Florida which has already received very heavy rain this summer.

The last tropical cyclone to make landfall on south Florida was Tropical Storm Bonnie on July 23, 2010. It came ashore at Key Largo, just east of Homestead. And before that, the previous one was Tropical Storm Ernesto on August 30, 2006.  So indeed, by south Florida standards, the “action” has been very sparse since the wild 2004 and 2005 seasons.

[U.S. coastline vulnerability to hurricanes is growing to unprecedented levels]

As Tropical Storm Erika barrels its way through the Caribbean, Florida residents head to the stores to stock up on supplies. (Video: Reuters)

(Jason Samenow contributed to this post)