Schools, shelters in Escambia and Santa Rosa brace for possibility of 2 storms in Gulf

With the possibility of two hurricanes swirling in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time next week for the first time in recorded history — potentially resulting in a double landfall somewhere along the Gulf Coast or a massive super-hurricane caused by the Fujiwhara Effect — officials in the Florida Panhandle are gearing up to prepare for anything and everything. 

Tropical Depression 13 strengthened into Tropical Storm Laura on Friday morning, making it the earliest “L” storm to be named, and it has the Panhandle in its messy path. Right behind that storm is Tropical Depression 14, which is also forecast to become a hurricane by early next week.

Laura is coming: Tropical Storm Laura forms in Atlantic, Florida Panhandle in messy path

TD 14 is currently projected to make landfall west of the Panhandle, possibly in Louisiana, sometime next week, according to early forecasting models. Laura’s most recent track has it making landfall Wednesday in an area anywhere from the Panhandle to eastern Louisiana as a Category 1 hurricane.

While the two storms are separate systems, there is a rare chance they could merge into a single massive super-hurricane caused by something known as the Fujiwhara Effect.

According to the National Weather Service, a Fujiwhara Effect is:

When two hurricanes spinning in the same direction pass close enough to each other, they begin an intense dance around their common center. If one hurricane is a lot stronger than the other, the smaller one will orbit it and eventually come crashing into its vortex to be absorbed. Two storms closer in strength can gravitate towards each other until they reach a common point and merge, or merely spin each other around for a while before shooting off on their own paths. But often, the effect is additive when hurricanes come together — we usually end up with one massive storm instead of two smaller ones.

Jack Cullen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, Alabama, said the two systems merging into one is extremely unlikely.

“It’s a very, very rare possibility,” he said Friday. “There’s a lot going on with these storms, but more often than not, the storms deflect around each other, or the larger storm destroys the other. The most likely outcome is that there are two separate systems that go to two separate areas.

“But there’s a lot of ground to cover, both systems still have to go over land, and if they do go over land, that’s going to cause weakening,” he added. “If they don’t, they could strengthen.”

A first: Two hurricanes in Gulf at same time? What could Laura and Marco do?

The name of the game, as of Friday, was that it was still too early to tell what impacts, if any, the Pensacola area will see come next week. 

“(Laura’s) path is going to change several times between now and then,” Cullen said. “The one impact we do know is rip currents. That one’s fairly certain. And even outside of any tropical system, rain chances are going to increase because we’re going to get a lot more tropical moisture.”

What’s the plan for schools?

To make matters more complicated, school is supposed to start back for Escambia and Santa Rosa students on Monday — which, if either tropical system does end up having an impact on the Pensacola area, it could throw a wrench into the school reopening plans. 

Emergency management leaders in both counties say they’ve already begun coordinating with their respective school districts as of Friday.

Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas told the News Journal in an email that the district is “monitoring the situation and will respond as more information is available next week.” 

Back to school next week: ‘I’m scared to death’: 82% of Santa Rosa County students will return to school in-person


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