Tropical storm Nate poses weekend threat to U.S. central Gulf Coast

MIAMI — Tropical storm Nate moved across northeastern Nicaragua on Thursday, en route to Honduras, as early forecast models showed it taking aim this weekend at the central U.S. Gulf Coast, likely as a minor hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Nate’s forecast track had shifted slightly by late Thursday morning, putting New Orleans — and its compromised drainage system — directly in the storm’s sights, with landfall predicted midmorning Sunday along the Louisiana coast as a hurricane.

Residents across southeastern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were expected to feel the storm’s fury over Columbus Day weekend, meteorologists said.

The forecast cone also covered a small sliver of the Florida Panhandle, where officials still reeling from Hurricane Irma enacted emergency plans.

Nate’s maximum sustained winds had increased by Thursday to 40 mph, with the storm forecast to remain close to that intensity all day as it moved inland over Nicaragua and Honduras, forecasters said.

Life-threatening flash flooding and mudslides were possible in the Central American nations, with extreme rainfall totals of 15 to 20 inches possible in Nicaragua and up to 8 inches predicted for Honduras.

A tropical storm warning was in effect from Sandy Bay Sirpi, Nicaragua, to Punta Castilla, Honduras, and from Punta Herrero to Rio Lagartos, Mexico, the hurricane center said.

After crossing over Central America, Nate was expected to move back into the warm waters of the western Caribbean, forecasters said.

There, the storm could strengthen and experience an increase in forward speed, though the Yucatan Peninsula could inhibit its growth.

Some forecast models had predicted Nate would become a much stronger hurricane and make landfall on the Florida Panhandle, but those models now have fallen more in line with predictions of a landfall along the central Gulf Coast, meteorologist Brandon Miller said.

Still, many factors will play a role in Nate’s development through the weekend, he said.

“How much Nate is able to strengthen once it hits those warm waters depends a lot on how intact the center of the storm can maintain as it traverses land,” Miller said. “If it gets ragged, it will take some time to reform over the ocean, and that will mean less time to gain in intensity.

“But if it manages to stay together while over Central America, it will be able to take advantage of those warm waters and quickly strengthen, maybe even undergo ‘rapid intensification,'” he said.

Rapid intensification occurs when a storm’s maximum sustained winds increase at least 35 mph in 24 hours or less.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria all underwent the phenomenon on their way to becoming major hurricanes earlier this season.