Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:16 AM GMT on September 04, 2011
Tropical Storm Lee continues to bring heavy rain, moderately strong wind gusts, and tornado risk to the Gulf Coast states east of Texas. Lee is 55 miles south of Lafayette, Louisiana, and is drifting almost due north at 4 mph. Lee's central pressure dropped to 988 mb since this morning, but has maximum sustained wind speeds that have decreased to 50mph. The National Hurricane Center has extended the tropical storm warning eastward to Destin, Florida. Since this morning, New Orleans Lakefront Airport has received about another inch of rain for a storm total of 6.87 inches. Rainfall estimates from radar suggest some locations, especially close to the coast, might have already seen up to 8 inches of rain from Tropical Storm Lee. Although the New Orleans area is in a dry slot of the storm, more rain can be expected through the night in the form of isolated storms with heavy downpours. Louisiana's Jefferson Parish officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for three towns earlier today: Lafitte, Crown Point, and Barataria. Heavy rain and tidal surge pushed the water of Bayou Barataria into the surrounding low-lying areas, and officials warned that if residents didn't leave, they might become stranded for a couple of days.
Figure 1. Infrared satellite of Tropical Storm Lee captured around 6pm EDT. Source: NOAA.
Forecast for Tropical Storm Lee
Lee's forecast hasn't changed much since this morning. Dry air is being pulled in from the west, which is giving the storm a very subtropical appearance, and is mitigating intensification. Earlier today, two centers of circulation were visible in satellite and confirmed by Hurricane Hunters. The centers were rotating around each other in full Fujiwara fashion, and although they were scientifically interesting, it meant that there was no clear center of circulation, and probably helped to weaken storm. The National Hurricane Center expects that Lee will come ashore in Louisiana later this evening and linger over the region until Monday, when it will finally be pushed north by a mid-latitude wave.
Lee's tornado threat
A tornado watch is in effect for southern Louisiana and portions of Mississippi, Alabama, and the western Florida Panhandle until 10pm CDT. The forecast is for small and short-lived tornadoes, but the threat for tornado damage is still there. A PhD student at Georgia Tech (and my former group member), James Belanger, runs a skillful model to predict the number of tornadoes that a tropical cyclone could produce. The model uses variables such as the size of the storm, the maximum wind speed, and moisture. For the 2008 hurricane season, the model accurately predicted the number of tornadoes that would be spawned from a quite a few tropical cyclones, including Hurricane Dolly, Tropical Storm Edouard, Tropical Storm Fay, and Hurricane Ike. Given today's forecast track and intensity, Belanger's model is forecasting 30-40 tornadoes could be spawned from Tropical Storm Lee, mainly in the Southeast states east of and including Louisiana.
Interestingly, although the nose of dry air that's being pulled in from drought-stricken Texas (visible in the satellite image above) is acting to keep the storm weak, it's also playing a role in the number of tornadoes that could be spawned from Lee. The dry air is a crucial component for the storm to develop discrete, isolated thunderstorm cells (versus a large shield of heavy rain). The discrete cells, just like during severe weather season, are the storms that are most capable of producing a tornado.
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