Labor Day weekend washout feared for North Carolina coast

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U.S. East and Gulf Coasts, Hawaii Under Threat From Tropical Systems

Tropical Depression 9 could give the North Carolina coast the blues this Labor Day weekend.

The weather system churning in the Gulf of Mexico is on a track to grow into a tropical storm that could march across the midsection of Florida north of Tampa and hit the Outer Banks sometime Saturday, the National Weather Service warned Tuesday.

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But before that storm arrives to spoil the start of the last busy weekend of summer, the North Carolina coast has to contend with Tropical Depression 8, which is expected to rake the area later Tuesday with 45-mph winds, higher gusts and heavy rain that could flood low-lying areas through Wednesday.

RELATED: Top 5 cities vulnerable to hurricanes:

Top 5 cities vulnerable to hurricanes
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Top 5 cities vulnerable to hurricanes

Miami, Florida

Miami takes the number one spot on this list with a 16 percent chance of experiencing the impacts of a hurricane in any given year. Based on historical data, on average a hurricane will pass within 50 miles of the Miami metropolitan area every six to eight years. With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and a maximum elevation of 42 feet above sea level Miami's geography makes it highly vulnerable to hurricanes.

In addition to this, a majority of the population resides within 20 miles of the coastline increasing the risk of high property damage.

"Miami has a large population density, and as a result, the effects of a major hurricane would be catastrophic to the city," AccuWeather Meteorologist David Samuhel said. "Also, because of its southern location, Miami is probably the largest city on this list to see a Category 4 or 5 hurricane in the future."

Although a major hurricane is long overdue in Miami, the city has dealt with its share of intense hurricanes in the past. The last major hurricane to affect the city was Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which packed winds of 165 mph and currently holds the record as the third strongest U.S. landfalling hurricane. Andrew's total damage cost was $26.5 billion as communities in the surrounding areas were severely affected due to its intense winds and high storm surge.

Key West, Florida

Key West, like Miami, has a 16 percent chance of being impacted by a hurricane during any Atlantic hurricane season. Known as the Southernmost City in the Continental United States, Key West is directly impacted by a hurricane every 5.96 years, according to Hurricane City.

The Florida Keys are an archipelago of about 1,700 islands spanning 113 miles with Key West located at the southern tip. With the Atlantic Ocean to the south and east and the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west, the coastal town is exposed to all sides to passing hurricanes.

Key West with maximum elevation of 18 feet above sea level makes it susceptible to heavy flooding and storm surge during a hurricane event. Hurricane Wilma in 2004, regarded as the worst storm to hit the area, passed just west of Key West and produced a storm surge of 8 feet leaving 60-70 percent of the island under water.

"Key West has faced several situations in the past where it has been brushed or directly affected by some of the strongest hurricanes to hit the United States. This includes the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane which was remembered as one of the most intense U.S. hurricanes based on pressure and maximum wind speeds," Samuhel said. "Because Key West is so far from the mainland, evacuating people can be a difficult challenge during a hurricane event."

Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

Located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Cape Hatteras has a 15 percent chance of feeling the impacts of a hurricane in any given year. Cape Hatteras is positioned 280 miles farther east than Palm Beach, Florida, (easternmost location of the Florida coast). As a result, Cape Hatteras has been exposed in the past to hurricanes that move up the Eastern Seaboard.

"Cape Hatteras is very close to the Gulf Stream, which enables hurricanes to strengthen due to warmer ocean temperatures during the summer," Samuhel explained. "Typically, when tropical systems get caught in the jet stream off the East Coast of the U.S., they tend to curve out to sea, but because of the location of Hatteras, hurricanes tend to clip that region before affecting anywhere else on the East Coast."

When Hurricane Isabel struck the region in 2003, the Army Corp of Engineers was forced to fill up an inlet that was created when the storm split Hatteras Island between Frisco and Hatteras, North Carolina.

Tampa, Florida

The western coast of Florida has endured its share of hurricanes, and the city of Tampa is no exception. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area has an 11 percent chance of feeling the impacts of a hurricane in any given year. Tampa, situated on a peninsula lying along Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, is exposed to hurricanes entering the Gulf and systems forming in the Atlantic. Many of the 347,645 people living in the area have homes along the coast, making residents susceptible to storm surge.

"Like Miami, Tampa is a large metropolitan area and the effects of a hurricane would be widespread throughout the city," Samuhel explained. "Because it is located by the shallow Tampa Bay, water piles up into the city, causing very significant storm surge along the coastline."

The city hasn't suffered a direct hit by a strong hurricane since the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane, the first major hurricane to hit the city, but 68 tropical storms and hurricanes have passed within 60 miles of the city according to Hurricane City. Most recently in 2004, Hurricane Charley caused $16 billion in damages when the Category 4 storm made landfall just south of Tampa.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shined the light on how devastating a tropical system can be for the city of New Orleans. Like Tampa, The Big Easy has an 11 percent chance of experiencing the impact of a hurricane in an average year. According to NOAA, a hurricane makes landfall within 50 miles of New Orleans about once every seven to 11 years.

The city has since made drastic improvements to its levee system since Katrina left most of the city under several feet of water. Nevertheless, with more than 50 percent of the city living below sea level and the rapid sinking of marshy coastal land in southeastern Louisiana, New Orleans still remains highly vulnerable to storm surge during a major hurricane.

"The Mississippi River is almost 30 feet above the city level just to put in perspective of how low New Orleans is in terms of elevation," Samuhel said. "The land around New Orleans is sinking, which puts the city in more danger if another major hurricane strike."


As of Tuesday afternoon, it was southeast of Cape Hatteras, with top sustained winds of 35 mph, and moving to the northwest. A tropical storm warning was in effect from Oregon Inlet to Cape Lookout and in Pamlico Sound.

"That will be the first of the two punches," said Steve Pfaff, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. "But all eyes are on TD 9. That could ride up our way and make it very dangerous for beachgoers over Labor Day weekend."

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Meaning a trifecta of potential trouble — dangerous undertows, dangerous swells and lots of rain.

"The big question is how much," said Pfaff. "We could get anywhere from an inch to 3 inches if it tracks further west."

The silver lining — and there is likely to be one — is that once the storm is gone, the rest of the Labor Day weekend could be a thing of beauty, said Pfaff.

"The weather could get nice by the Sunday/Monday time frame," he said.

TD 9 was about 240 miles west of Key West, Fla., with maximum winds of 35 mph. It was moving west, but forecasters say it could curve back to the northeast in the coming days.

Is it a potential hurricane? Not likely, said Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center.

"The latest NBC forecast does not see that as a possibility," he said. "It is kept as a tropical storm into Saturday, after which time it loses its tropical characteristics on Sunday as it moves away from the U.S. Coastline."

Meanwhile, the sandbags were out at some locations in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area as Florida residents braced for a downpour.

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