As Rita continues on into the Gulf of Mexico tonight, continued strengthening is expected. The shear over her has dropped below 5 knots, and may decrease further. The upper level outflow has improved considerably today, and Rita now has a more circular and symmetric appearance with excellent outflow on all sides. The water under Rita will remain in the 30 - 31C range until Wednesday morning, then cool off to 29 - 30C over the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, where the cooler waters stirred up to the surface by Hurricane Katrina still remain. These cooler waters should keep Rita in the strong Category 2 to strong Category 3 range as she moves across the central Gulf. Once Rita approaches the coast of Texas, the cold water wake of Katrina ends and water temperatures warm up to about 30C, which may allow some intensification. Rita may be a strong Category 3 hurricane by landfall in Texas on Saturday. There is a 20% chance Rita will attain Category 4 status at some point on her journey across the Gulf, perhaps even at landfall.
Figure 2.Sea Surface temperatures for Monday, September 19. Note the cooler wake in the center of the Gulf left by Katrina.
Threat to Louisiana fades
Last night, the NOAA jet flew its first mission into Rita, and collected high-density data used to initialize last night's computer model runs. The models are more tightly clustered than before, and now all the models point to a landfall in Texas Saturday, somewhere between Brownsville and Galveston. NHC thinks that their current projected landfall point near Matagorda, TX is more reliable than usual. If we take the average NHC 4-day forecast track error of 200 miles and knock it down by 50 miles or so since we're assuming NHC is correct about their more reliable than usual forecast, this gives a probable landfall point somewhere between Corpus Christi and the Texas/Louisiana border. So, western Louisiana is still at considerable risk, but New Orleans will miss this hurricane.
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