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Tropical Storm Gamma forms, rapidly intensifies and is battering Yucatán Peninsula

It is the earliest 24th-named storm on record in the Atlantic, while a second disturbance may develop not far behind.

Satellite view of Tropical Storm Gamma around 9 a.m. Saturday. (NOAA)
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On Friday night, the National Hurricane Center declared the tropical depression over the western Caribbean had become Tropical Storm Gamma. Since then, the storm strengthened on its approach to the Yucatán Peninsula, where it will move inland Saturday.

Gamma became the earliest 24th-named storm on record in the Atlantic Ocean by more than three weeks.

Packing maximum sustained winds of 70 mph, the storm was continuing to intensify and could even reach hurricane strength before its center crosses the east coast of the Yucatán around midday. The storms winds had increased 35 mph in 24 hours, meeting the criteria for rapid intensification, which has been the mark of many 2020 storms as they approach land.

The government of Mexico upgraded a Tropical Storm Warning to a Hurricane Warning for the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula from north of Punta Allen to Cancún, including Cozumel.

The Hurricane Center increased the maximum rainfall forecast, predicting amounts “as high as 10 to 15 inches possible across the northeastern portion of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo,” which includes Cancún.

“Gamma is expected to produce heavy rainfall that could result in life-threatening flash flooding over portions of the Yucatán Peninsula, far western Cuba and well away from the center in the Mexican states of Campeche, Tabasco, and northern Chiapas,” the Hurricane Center warned.

The storm will weaken as it moves over land. By Sunday, it is predicted to emerge over the southern Gulf of Mexico before drifting to the southwest and meandering over the water for several days. Later next week, it may move ashore along the east coast of Mexico’s mainland.

Meanwhile, the Hurricane Center has increased the probability that the Caribbean disturbance trailing Gamma will develop into a tropical depression or storm, raising the likelihood from 30 percent to 50 percent.

After a record number of named storms in September in the Atlantic, the tropics are picking up right where they left off in October as two systems show the potential to organize. The first of the two systems, declared a tropical depression Friday, has prompted tropical storm warnings for parts of the Yucatán Peninsula. A second system may develop right on its heels as it traverses the Caribbean.

The newly formed depression is predicted to intensify into a tropical storm by Saturday, earning the name Gamma. It would become the earliest 24th-named storm on record in the Atlantic, forming more than three weeks ahead of the previous record-holder named on Oct. 27, 2005. Forecasters have run out of conventional storm names in 2020 and are drawing from the Greek alphabet for only the second time.

Why the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has spun out of control

The National Hurricane Center declared Tropical Depression 25 born in the western Caribbean in its 11 a.m. advisory Friday. Centered about 220 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, the system has maximum sustained winds of 35 mph and is heading northwest at 9 mph.

Heavy rainfall is the depression’s most immediate concern. The Hurricane Center projects four to eight inches for parts of the Yucatán Peninsula and far western Cuba, with isolated 12-inch totals, which may cause flash floods and mudslides.

“A separate area of significant rain is expected to develop well away from the center in the Mexican states of Campeche, Tabasco, and northern Chiapas, with rainfall of 8 to 12 inches and isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches,” the Hurricane Center wrote.

Although environmental conditions are favorable for the depression’s intensification, its strength may be held in check by its interaction with land. By Saturday night, it is forecast to move over the Yucatán Peninsula as a low-end tropical storm with peak winds of 45 mph.

On Sunday and Monday, the system is predicted to emerge over the southern and southwest Gulf of Mexico, where steering currents “are not well-defined” according to the Hurricane Center. Its official forecast calls for it to drift through the southwest Gulf of Mexico through the middle of next week. Beyond that, it’s unclear whether what remains of the system will drift westward over Mexico or potentially turn more to the northwest.

The depression’s future intensity is also something of a wild card, but the Hurricane Center calls for the system to hold at tropical storm strength with peak winds between 45 and 50 mph once it emerges over the Gulf of Mexico.

On the heels of Tropical Depression 25, the Hurricane Center is monitoring a disturbance in the eastern Caribbean, which just crossed the Lesser Antilles. The large mass of thunderstorms is moving westward at 15 to 20 mph.

“[E]nvironmental conditions could become a little more conducive for development when the system is over the central or western Caribbean Sea early next week,” the Hurricane Center wrote, giving it a 30 percent chance of becoming a tropical depression or storm in the next five days.

Computer models indicate this system, if it develops, may enter the southern Gulf of Mexico in about a week. But where it tracks after that is uncertain. Some models project it will curl westward into Mexico, while others suggest it will get drawn north toward the U.S. Gulf Coast around Columbus Day.

Should this system earn a name, it will be Tropical Storm Delta.

Starting next week and lasting through at least mid-October, conditions may be favorable for even more storm formation in the tropical Atlantic. A broad area of rising motion over the Pacific is forecast to pivot east and envelop the western Atlantic. That will help boost thunderstorm updrafts and make it easier for tropical systems to form.

October Atlantic hurricane outlook: Busy times ahead

In October, storms are most likely to develop in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic, while they turn somewhat more hostile in the eastern Atlantic Ocean due to strong upper level winds that disrupt thunderstorm development.

Matthew Cappucci contributed to this report.