By Haley Brink, CNN Meteorologist
A potent tropical system is churning in the Caribbean on Friday, poised to strengthen significantly as it tracks north toward the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasts show the system intensifying into a Category 3 as it approaches Florida next week, where it could become the first major hurricane for the state since 2018.
The system, Tropical Depression Nine, formed early Friday morning over the central Caribbean Sea and is likely to become the season’s next named storm, according to the National Hurricane Center. It would be named Ian when it strengthens to tropical storm status, which it could do as early as Friday night.
Nine had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph and was around 400 miles southeast of Jamaica on Friday afternoon as it tracked west-northwest at 15 mph.
While the system is expected to undergo slow strengthening over the next couple of days, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warned rapid intensification is possible — if not likely — as it passes over the very warm waters of the Caribbean and the southeast Gulf of Mexico.
If it strengthens to a Category 3 or higher before reaching Florida, it would be the first major hurricane to make landfall there since Hurricane Michael in 2018, which was a monster Category 5 storm when it collided with the Florida panhandle. Michael also underwent rapid intensification before it made landfall, a phenomenon which has been made more likely as ocean temperatures warm due to the climate crisis.
Tropical storm-force winds could begin to affect southwest Florida early Tuesday, with landfall possible on Wednesday. The exact timing and location of the storm’s US landfall will depend highly on its final path, which could shift in the coming days.
The National Hurricane Center said Friday evening there was still “increased track uncertainty” in the forecast after it enters the Gulf of Mexico, noting weather models had shifted west in recent runs. The latest track forecast suggests much of the Gulf Coast of Florida — including the eastern panhandle — could be at risk.
As the forecasts intensify, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday requested federal emergency assistance in anticipation of the threat and also declared a state of emergency for 24 counties. Under the state-level emergency order, members of the Florida National Guard will be activated and on standby awaiting orders.
The governor urged those in the potential path of the storm to prepare.
“This storm has the potential to strengthen into a major hurricane and we encourage all Floridians to make their preparations,” DeSantis said in a news release. “We are coordinating with all state and local government partners to track potential impacts of this storm.”
In the near term, Nine is forecast to bring heavy rain to Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, northern Venezuela and northern Colombia which could lead to flash flooding and mudslides across the islands. The system is then forecast to gain strength, intensifying into a tropical storm as it tracks toward Jamaica and the Cayman islands.
A hurricane watch has been issued for the Cayman Islands, including Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac. A tropical storm watch has been issued for Jamaica.
Forecast rainfall totals:
- Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao: Additional 1 to 2 inches
- Northern Venezuela: 2 to 5 inches
- Northern Colombia: 3 to 6 inches
- Jamaica: 4 to 8 inches with local maximum up to 12 inches
- Cayman Islands: 4 to 8 inches, with local maximum up to 12 inches
- Southern Haiti and Southern Dominican Republic: 2 to 4 inches with local maximum up to 6 inches
- Western, central Cuba: 6 to 10 inches with local maximums up to 14 inches
It has been a slow start to what was forecast to be an above-average hurricane season. Only one storm has made landfall in a US territory, and no hurricane has made landfall or threatened the contiguous United States.
Now, a week past the peak of hurricane season, the tropics seem to have woken up, and forecasters are concerned people have let down their guard.
“After a slow start, the Atlantic hurricane season has ratcheted up quickly,” Phil Klotzbach, research scientist at Colorado State University, tweeted.
“People tend to lower their guard and think, oh, yeah, we’re out of the woods,” Torres said. “But in reality, the season continues. We are still in September; we still have October to go. Anything that forms over either the Atlantic or the Caribbean is something that we need to keep monitoring very closely.”
The Atlantic hurricane season ends November 30.
No matter what, if you live in the Caribbean, Florida and other states along the Gulf Coast, pay attention to the updated forecasts this weekend into early next week.
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CNN’s Allison Chinchar, Judson Jones, Jennifer Gray and Raja Razek contributed to this report.