The Florida Gulf Coast is preparing for a tropical storm forecast to make landfall sometime on Thursday, likely north of Tampa Bay. Though the system dubbed Tropical Depression Nine has not strengthened since Monday, gradual intensification is expected over the next day or so as it turns toward Florida.

As of Tuesday morning, the National Hurricane Center was forecasting Nine to strengthen into a tropical storm before making landfall in the Big Bend area of Florida on Thursday. This means that the storm will have maximum sustained winds of at least 39 mph, and slightly higher wind gusts. If the system is upgraded to a tropical storm, it will be named Hermine or Ian.

A tropical storm watch is expected on Tuesday afternoon, 48 hours prior to expected storm conditions.

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Though unlikely, it’s still possible that Nine could strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane if the surrounding environment becomes more favorable before Thursday. The forecast models are predicting the system to max out as a strong tropical storm, but hurricane intensity is still very difficult to forecast.

If the storm strengthens to hurricane status, it will be the first hurricane to make landfall in Florida in nearly 11 years — since Wilma in 2005.

The exact landfall location is uncertain, especially since most of the thunderstorm activity is still south of the center of the depression on Tuesday. As Nine pulls away from Cuba, the center could redevelop to the south, in the middle of these thunderstorms, which would shift the entire track south.

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The worst-case scenario is a Category 1 hurricane making landfall at high tide. This region of the Gulf of Mexico is highly susceptible to storm surge due to the shape of the sea flood just off the coast. Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters pointed out that, if a Category 1 makes landfall at high tide in the Big Bend region, a water depth of 9 to 10 feet is possible north of Tampa. (Water depth is tide + storm surge.)

High tide at Clearwater Beach, Fla., is 12 p.m. on Thursday — very close to the expected landfall of this tropical storm.

The National Hurricane Center ran its storm surge model on Tuesday morning. This model shows that, given a landfall location in Taylor or Dixie County, a water level up to and possibly greater than six feet could inundate the shoreline in Citrus, Levy and Dixie counties. The Suwannee River could experience a three-foot water rise up to 20 miles inland.

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If the storm track shifts south, the surge impacts will be greater with a higher coastal population in the counties just north of Tampa.

Heavy rain will exacerbate coastal flooding. Through Saturday, the National Weather Service is forecasting at least six inches of rain from Dixie County to Naples. The HWRF hurricane forecast model is suggesting that areas south of the storm center in heavier bands of rain could measure over 16 inches.

Preparations are underway in counties along the Gulf Coast ahead of the tropical storm. Citrus County, which has a population of just over 140,000 people, is preparing mainly for flooding due to rain.

Lindsay Blair, a public relations specialist for the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, said sand bags are being set up in three locations on the gulf side of the county, where five to 10 inches of rain would be more than enough to cause disruptive if not significant flooding in some areas.

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Some school meetings and school sports have been canceled for Thursday, but so far evacuations have not been on the agenda. “Tomorrow is going to be a big day for us in terms of determining the major impacts that we’re going to see,” Blair told The Post.

The National Weather Service is launching extra weather balloons in the Southeast to provide more data for forecast models. Typically, weather balloons are launched every 12 hours. During big weather events, they can be launched every six hours to increase forecast accuracy.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were scheduled to host the Washington Redskins on Thursday evening, but officials at Raymond James Stadium decided to move the game ahead one day to Wednesday out of safety concerns. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

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