Tropical Storm Fay could bring rain to western Carolinas

Tropical Storm Fay is a hurricane threat for residents of south Florida, but the storm could be good news for the drought-stricken western Carolinas later this week.

The important word ... could.

Forecasters are having an extremely difficult time predicting what will happen to Fay after it makes its expected landfall as a Category 1 hurricane Tuesday morning on the southwest coast of Florida.

All sorts of outcomes are possible, according to the various computer models -- forecasts generated by the different computer programs used by meteorologists.

The official National Hurricane Center forecast is most beneficial to the western Carolinas. That predicted path takes Fay northward across Florida and into southeast Georgia by Thursday morning. The system, still expected to be at tropical storm strength then, is forecast to curve back to the northwest and cross the South Carolina Midlands and western North Carolina later Thursday and Friday.

That path could bring heavy rain to the Charlotte metro region.

But other forecasts take Fay across Florida and out into the open Atlantic -- or in the other direction, out into the Gulf of Mexico. A lack of strong steering currents is responsible for the varying forecasts, say meteorologists.

"We have three or four different models for what might happen," said Pat Moore, of the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C. "The models always have a tough time handling tropical systems."

Dr. Jeff Masters, a Michigan-based meteorologist whose blog is heavily read by meteorologists and those who closely follow weather, believes Fay could even cross Florida, regain strength, and then turn back into the South Carolina coast later this week.

Referring to a pair of the computer models, Masters wrote, "Both models anticipate a possible threat to South Carolina later in the week, after Fay crosses Florida and emerges in the Atlantic."

Dying tropical storms are responsible for much of the rainfall across the western Carolinas and Georgia during late summer and early autumn. The remnants of Tropical Storm Jerry in July 1995 dumped up to 10 inches of rain in the Charlotte area and caused three fatalities.

In September 2004, the remnants of hurricanes Frances and Jeanne dumped devastating rainfall in the North Carolina mountains.

Another threat from dying tropical system is tornadoes. The remnants of Hurricane Frances spawned a record-setting number of tornadoes across South Carolina four years ago. The same system also set off tornadoes in the Charlotte area.

Late Monday morning, Fay was a tropical storm, centered about 70 miles south-southeast of Key West, Fla. It was moving northwest about 13 mph, with top sustained winds of 60 mph.

Jack Beven, of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Fay is expected to intensify to hurricane strength by the time of its predicted landfall Tuesday morning along the Gulf coast of southwest Florida.

A hurricane warning is in effect along the southwest Florida coast; a hurricane watch and tropical storm warning is posted in the Florida Keys; a tropical storm warning is issued for the east Florida coast, northward to Cocoa Beach; and a tropical storm watch on the east Florida coast from Cocoa Beach north to Fernandina Beach.

In Key West, Fla., some stores were shuttered Monday while others stubbornly remained open as rain and wind gusts from Tropical Storm Fay began to lash at south Florida after the storm claimed up to 35 lives in the Caribbean.

Roughly 25,000 tourists had evacuated, Monroe County Mayor Mario Di Gennaro told the Associated Press, but some bars and restaurants were doing business, even if crowds were considerably thinner than typical for this time of year. At the Stuffed Pig restaurant in Marathon, about a dozen locals had breakfast Monday morning, not worried but prepared for the storm.

“We always prepare, we don't take it lightly,” owner Michael Cinque told the Associated Press. “We might roll down the shutters. We got built-in generators.”

Willie Dykes, 58, and friend Essy Pastrana, 48, live on a sailboat in Key West, and said they weren't going anywhere. The pair was filling up gas cans Monday morning and buying supplies like food, water and whiskey.

“We're gonna ride it out,” Dykes told the AP, his fluffy white beard blowing sideways in the wind. “We're not worried about it. We've seen this movie before.”

Fay, the sixth named storm of the 2008 Atlantic season, left at least five people dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A Haitian lawmaker said another 30 people may have died in a bus crash blamed on the storm.

The Associated Press contributed.

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