The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fred makes landfall along Florida Panhandle as a strong tropical storm

It is forecast to unleash flooding rain through the Southeast and the Appalachians as it heads inland

Tropical Storm Fred at landfall Monday afternoon. (NOAA)

Tropical Storm Fred swept ashore the Florida Panhandle on Monday afternoon, the fourth Atlantic named storm to make landfall in the United States in 2021. It crossed the coast near Cape San Blas, Fla., at 3:15 p.m. Eastern time, packing winds of 65 mph, just 9 mph shy of hurricane strength.

Cape San Blas is about midway between Mexico Beach and Apalachicola and close to where Category 5 Hurricane Michael made landfall in 2018. The other three named storms to make landfall so far this year were Claudette, Danny and Elsa.

Just a tropical depression on Saturday, Fred roared back to life over the last 36 to 48 hours, strengthening over the warm waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The storm poses “a danger of life-threatening inundation from rising water moving inland from the coastline,” according to a National Hurricane Center bulletin issued Monday morning. Hardest hit will be the Big Bend of Florida west toward Pensacola, including Panama City. That’s where tropical storm warnings and flash flood watches are in effect.

Tropical storm-force winds were lashing the coast of the Florida Peninsula through the afternoon. The Hurricane Center reported winds had gusted up to 58 mph in Apalachicola, while radar showed the storm’s heavy rain stretching from just west of Panama City north to Dothan, Ala., and east to near Tallahassee.

A flash flood warning was in effect for Panama City and locations just to the northeast, where 4 to 6 inches of rain had fallen and up to several more inches were possible.

In Apalachicola, water levels had risen over three feet above normal levels through midday Monday.

Before the storm pulls away to the north early Tuesday, rainfall totals near the Florida Panhandle coast could swell to eight inches with some places approaching a foot, producing areas of flooding.

Through the middle of the week, heavy rain from the storm will sweep inland through the Southeast and the Appalachians, expanding the flood threat.

Fred is one of three tropical systems cluttering the Atlantic, which has sprung to life with activity in just the past week. Grace, a tropical depression, is following in Fred’s footsteps. It’s unleashing copious rainfall on Hispaniola, including in parts of Haiti reeling from Saturday’s disastrous 7.2-magnitude earthquake. Widespread mudslides and flash flooding will hamper rescue and recovery efforts.

Tropical Depression Grace to drench Haiti days after major earthquake

Heavy rain hit Fort Myers, Fla., on Aug. 13. The rapidly intensifying tropical storm is projected to make landfall around the Florida Panhandle on Aug. 16. (Video: @MichialeS via Spectee)

Impacts from Fred

Though winds near the coast could gust over 65 mph, downing trees and causing power outages, the biggest hazard will remain flooding — both coastal and freshwater.

The coastal surge, or rise in ocean water above normally dry land, will affect areas slammed by Hurricane Michael in October 2018, inundating low-lying areas, including roads and shoreline homes and businesses, in up three to five feet of water. Michael’s surge, for comparison, topped 15 feet.

Storm surge warnings are up between Indian Pass, near Apalachicola Bay, and Yankeetown, roughly 80 miles from Tampa. The peak surge is anticipated on southeast-facing beaches where onshore winds pile seawater against the coastline.

The heaviest rainfall may be found just east of the system’s center, especially in the zone between about Pensacola and Tallahassee.

Farther inland, precipitation amounts will drop off some as Fred becomes removed from its tropical moisture source — the Gulf of Mexico — but a plume of moisture will still accompany its decaying remnants as it rides through Alabama, Georgia and the Appalachians. That will deposit a strip of heavy rainfall that in some places could flirt with six inches. Atlanta could get a heavy dose of rainfall Tuesday before eastern Tennessee, the Cumberland Plateau and parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania are drenched into Wednesday.

In the Mid-Atlantic, it’s unclear what role Fred’s passage will play in the forecast, but its expansive moisture field will likely help in intensifying thunderstorms that pop up in the heat of the afternoon.

By late week, Fred will largely dissipate as it heads into Canada as a remnant low, but additional storms bear watching. Grace, a tropical depression trekking south of Haiti, could continue westward and delay its northward “recurve” thanks to high pressure keeping it south. That will heighten the risk in South Texas, including Brownsville, as well as in northern Mexico.

Additional tropical storminess

While forecasters busily track Fred and Grace, a third system, likely to earn the name Henri, has been scraping against Bermuda, brushing the island with spiral rain bands and breezy winds as the system dizzily dances through the open Atlantic. Additional tropical waves rolling off the coast of Africa could spell trouble in the weeks ahead.

Broadly speaking, it’s the time of year when the Atlantic usually springs to life, with mid-September historically favored to represent the peak of activity. As if on cue, overlapping atmospheric features could enhance tropical activity even more in the coming weeks, with the likelihood of one or more hurricanes and the chance of a strong hurricane or two.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.