TAMPA— The first tropical system of the 2018 hurricane season has formed in the Caribbean and threatens to drench the Tampa Bay area with heavy rains and potential flooding over the Memorial Day weekend.
As of 2 p.m., Subtropical Storm Alberto — which formed Friday morning — was nearly stationary about 60 miles south of Cozumel, Mexico, and had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph.
According to forecasters with the National Hurricane Center, the storm is expected to slowly move to the north through the weekend, passing near the eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula on Friday night and approaching the western tip of Cuba on Saturday morning.
It is forecast to dump about 10-15 inches of rain across those regions, with upwards of 25 inches possible, and produce flash flooding for Mexico, Cuba and the Keys before turning to the northwest and approaching the Alabama-Mississippi border by Monday morning.
The immediate Tampa Bay area could experience tropical storm-force winds by Saturday morning, forecasters said, and conditions along the coast could become dangerous with high winds and rip currents.
The system is forecast to bring an estimated 3-6 inches of rain to Tampa Bay over the weekend, said Rodney Wynn, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.
"Expect some dangerous conditions along the beach," Wynn said. "There could be some possible high surf with hazardous high risk of rip currents along the beaches."
Red flags warning of dangerous surf conditions are already flying along some beaches. Jordan Sawmiller of Ohio tells WALA-TV that he was approaching the water with caution in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
"It will hit you pretty hard . and it sucks you right back out. So, I don’t like getting in there very far," Sawmiller said.
A hotel owner in Panama City Beach, Florida, tells the Panama City News Herald that her family’s five hotels are normally full on Memorial Day weekend. But Julie Hilton said people are cancelling because of the weather and room reservations are down about 20 percent.
A subtropical storm has a less defined and cooler center than a tropical storm, and its strongest winds are found farther from its center. Subtropical storms can develop into tropical storms, which in turn can strengthen into hurricanes. Alberto comes ahead of schedule: the six-month hurricane season doesn’t begin until June 1.
"It’s mostly looking like a heavy rain event," National Weather Service meteorologist John McMichael said. "The main impact will be heavy rains that could exacerbate rivers and areas prone to flooding. The ground is already saturated, so more rain will only cause more."
The rain is expected to start Friday, with some showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon that should ease by evening, according to the weather service. Saturday rain is scheduled to be off and on throughout the day, potentially starting the flooding McMichael warned about. The rain is expected to intensify into Sunday and continue into Memorial Day.
This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.
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High winds are expected on the water, potentially reaching gale force, from Sunday and into early next week. The NWS says smaller boats should stay in port this weekend since conditions can change quickly.
Tropical Storm conditions associated with #Alberto are possible across the Yucatan Peninsula and western Cuba through Saturday. Tropical Storm conditions could reach the northern Gulf Coast as early as Sunday morning. pic.twitter.com/MImTcKhB2z— NHC Atlantic Ops (@NHC_Atlantic) May 25, 2018
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.