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On heels of Agatha, tropical storm may form in Gulf of Mexico

Agatha is dissipating but its remnants are forecast to be drawn into a system that could bring heavy rain and gusty winds to Florida

People try to travel through a flooded avenue in the municipality of Tehuantepec in the Mexican state of Oaxaca on Monday as Hurricane Agatha strikes. (Luis Villalobos/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Hurricane Agatha crashed into the Pacific coast of southern Mexico on Monday, unleashing winds up to 105 mph. The Category 2 hurricane became the most intense storm on record to strike the nation during May.

The storm has since rapidly weakened while passing over land, but its remnants are forecast to be drawn into a developing system in the Gulf of Mexico that has increasing chances to become a new tropical depression or storm later this week.

Should a storm form, it will probably earn the name Alex and become the first of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially begins Wednesday. Heading into the weekend, the nascent system could churn toward Cuba and Florida while bringing heavy rain and gusty winds.

NOAA forecasts seventh straight busy Atlantic hurricane season

While finishing its transit across southern Mexico on Tuesday, the remnants of Agatha are projected to produce rainfall totals of 10 and 20 inches over the higher terrain in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. The National Hurricane Center says they have the potential to cause “life-threatening flash flooding and mudslides.”

Agatha made landfall at 4 p.m. Central time on Monday, just west of Puerto Ángel in the state of Oaxaca, mostly affecting sparsely populated small beach towns and fishing villages. It became only the third hurricane to lash Mexico during the month of May.

Reuters reported that Mexico deployed its national guard ahead of the storm in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas to offer assistance. It wrote that the storm left two highways impassable and brought down telephone lines.

A new storm?

Once Agatha’s remnants emerge near the Yucatán Peninsula or eastern parts of the Bay of Campeche in the southern gulf, they are expected to nucleate new storm growth. The National Hurricane Center places substantial odds, around 70 percent, of this happening.

While it’s unusual for tropical storms or hurricanes to cross from one ocean basin to another, it’s not entirely unheard of. Usually, it happens as westward-drifting storms in the Caribbean trek west over the thin spine of Central America. Hurricane Otto, for example, made landfall on the Atlantic side of Costa Rica on Nov. 24, 2016, as a Category 3 storm. It continued trekking westward as a tropical storm in the Pacific while retaining its name.

That raises an important question — will whatever forms in the gulf keep the name Agatha from the Pacific, or will it claim the first name on the 2022 Atlantic list, which is Alex? It depends on storm organization.

If Agatha’s quickly withering central vortex were to somehow remain intact with a discernible circulation and that vortex became the anchor point of a new storm in the Atlantic, “Agatha” would remain. More likely, however, Agatha’s vortex will disintegrate, and its remnants will be absorbed by a new area of spin, which will earn a new name — in this case, Alex.

A new storm in the gulf?

Computer models generally agree that a system will develop in the gulf but differ on how strong it will become. The European model hints that a circulation will tighten in the late Thursday or Friday time frame and become a tropical storm near Florida by the weekend. The American GFS model, on the other hand, is less assertive.

If the stronger models are correct and Alex forms, Florida’s greatest threat would probably be heavy rains, with secondary risks from wind, coastal flooding and tornadoes. It will take at least another day or two for forecasts of the system’s strength to become clearer.

“Regardless of development, locally heavy rainfall is likely across portions of southeastern Mexico, the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, and Belize during the next few days, spreading across western Cuba, southern Florida, and the Florida Keys by the end of the week,” the Hurricane Center writes.

Models suggest rainfall totals of 4 to 6 inches are possible along the western coast of Florida over the next week.

After affecting Florida, the system — whether named Alex or not — is projected to ride parallel to the East Coast and sweep north and east out to sea, tugged north by a dip in the stream. It’s not out of the question that coastal areas of the Southeast are clipped by the system as it exits late in the weekend or early next week.

The possible formation of Alex is likely a harbinger of what’s to come — experts anticipate a very active Atlantic hurricane season.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.