Tropical depression off south Florida forecast to strengthen

MIAMI (AP) — A tropical depression that is expected to reach near hurricane intensity early next week formed Friday off south Florida, threatening heavy rains as it heads toward the peninsula.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Tropical Depression 19 was centered at 8 p.m. EDT about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east-southeast of Miami and was moving west-northwest at 8 mph (13 kph) with maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph).

The depression is forecast to move inland over south Florida early Saturday and pass into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico later that day.

Forecasters said the system could become a named tropical storm even before moving across south Florida overnight. Tropical storm status is expected by Sunday with gradual strengthening expected through Monday, according to the Miami-based hurricane center.

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Forecasters said the system is expected to approach near-hurricane intensity early next week as it moves into the northeastern Gulf.

A tropical storm watch was issued Friday for the coast of southeastern Florida from south of Jupiter Inlet to north of Ocean Reef. The watch means that tropical storm conditions are possible within the area for the next 6 to 12 hours. Rainfall totals of 1 to 3 inches (2.5 to 7 centimeters) with isolated maximums up to 5 inches (12 centimeters) are expected across central and southern Florida, including the Florida Keys.

Forecasters said the rains could produce isolated flash flooding and prolong ongoing minor flooding on rivers in the Tampa Bay area.

Elsewhere, according to the hurricane center, the system could pose a threat in coming days anywhere along the Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle to southeastern Louisiana. Those impacts could include storm surge, wind, and heavy rains, according to the hurricane center.

Tropical storms Paulette and Rene are already moving through the Atlantic Ocean, meaning the next storm to reach sustained winds of 39 mph (63 kph) would be named Tropical Storm Sally.

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