If the low pressure intensifies and becomes a tropical storm, it will be named Barry.

FORT WALTON BEACH — An area of low pressure — an indicator of potential tropical development — now moving across Georgia is expected to arrive in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, where it is expected to bring heavy rains later in the week and into the weekend across the Florida Panhandle and along the Gulf Coast into Texas.

 

But meteorologists with the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, along with area emergency management officials, are keeping a close eye on the developing weather system. The NHC on Monday was calling for "near gale force" winds in the northern Gulf of Mexico later this week. Gale force winds are winds between 39 mph and 54 mph. Additionally, according to the NHC, "Heavy rainfall is possible along portions of the northern and eastern U.S. Gulf Coast later this week."

"Right now, it's just a patch of clouds over Georgia," Da'Vel Johnson, meteorologist in the National Weather Service office in Mobile, which covers most of the western Florida Panhandle, said Monday afternoon. Various meteorological computer models have not yet converged with their predictions for the storm, so the National Weather Service as of Monday was "still in the monitoring phase," Johnson said, adding that as of Monday afternoon, expectations were for an "almost tropical" storm.

According to another meteorologist, Eric Bunker, in the Tallahassee NWS forecast office, Monday expectations were that the weather system won't be bringing much more than heavy rain to the eastern Panhandle.

According to Bunker, the computer forecast models are developing some agreement on a westward track for the storm, but the potential intensity of the storm remained unclear Monday.

If the storm intensifies once it's entered the Gulf, the National Weather Service will begin tracking it and will give it a name.

According to Johnson, the storm could track westward from anywhere between 100 and 200 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. The storm's distance from shore will have a direct effect on rainfall along the Panhandle, he said. The farther south the storm tracks, the less rain will fall across northern Florida, he explained. Johnson would not predict how much rain might fall later this week along the Panhandle.

Like the NWS and NHC meteorologists, local emergency management officials were on Monday entering what Okaloosa County Emergency Management Director Patrick Maddox called "an advanced monitoring stage."

As they wait for the National Weather Service to start issuing guidance on potential tracks for the storm, Okaloosa County emergency officials are in contact with the service on a regular basis. Should a serious storm develop, Maddox said, the county will follow its already-established emergency response plan, and will begin reaching out to state and federal government partners as conditions may warrant.

In neighboring Walton County, Jeff Goldberg, the county's emergency management director, said Monday that twice-daily weather updates are coming to the county from the National Weather Service and the meteorology unit of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

"At this point, it's just a lot of information sharing," Goldberg said.

"It looks like it's more than likely going to be just a rain event for us," Goldberg added. He went on, though, to cation that "the forecast intensity is all over the place." But, he added, "every day that comes along, the better the information is."

In Santa Rosa County, officials are taking much of their guidance from the National Weather Service, along with information from the state government, according to Brandi Whitehurst, the county's public information officer. Now, as the forecast is developing, is a good time for residents to review and adjust their hurricane preparedness planning, regardless of what the weather brings to the area over the next several days, she suggested.

"Figure that stuff out now, while you've got time," Whitehurst said.

In Bay County, which suffered a direct hit from October's Category 5 Hurricane Michael, emergency management officials are waiting for a couple of days, as forecasts become more definitive, before talking with the public about the storm, according to Sherri Hardy, assistant to the county manager.

The county has, though, already taken one preemptive step, according to Hardy. Sand is stockpiled at the Deer Point Dam and at Pete Edwards Field, 7300 McElvey Road in Panama City Beach, available for residents to fill sandbags to protect property from potential flooding.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted a likely range of nine to 15 named storms, with winds of 39 mph or higher, churning across the Atlantic seaboard including the Gulf of Mexico during the hurricane season, which began June 1 and continues through Nov. 30. The agency projects four to eight of those storms could become hurricanes, with two to four of those storms becoming major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or higher.