Strong Gulf storm will soak the South this weekend

The first travel weekend of the winter holidays will be wet across the Southeast as a storm developing over the Gulf of Mexico pushes through with gale-force winds and the risk of flooding.

While the low pressure system doesn’t qualify as a tropical storm, daily rainfall records could be set before it crosses over Florida, the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center tweeted. Potentially damaging winds also are predicted.

“By definition, a tropical storm has a warm core, and this storm will not have one because the Gulf of Mexico is too cold right now,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said. “Even though this storm will not be tropical in nature, winds could still gust to over 50 mph.”

Sustained winds of tropical-storm force — at least 39 mph — are expected in parts of Florida, Alabama and Georgia, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said.

Heavy rain will start late Friday in New Orleans, with 1 to 2 inches predicted by Sunday evening. The low-lying city’s drainage system, shaken by an explosion Saturday in equipment that powers key rainwater pumps, can handle that rainfall with electrical capacity to spare, said Richard Rainey, spokesman for the Sewerage & Water Board.

Track the latest weather and holiday travel delays

Starting late Saturday morning, the wide-reaching storm will dump 1 to 3 inches of rain on Birmingham, Alabama, and 2 to 4 inches on Panama City, Florida. Atlanta will get 1 to 3 inches between Saturday afternoon and Monday evening, while flood-prone Charleston, South Carolina, will receive 2 to 4 inches between Saturday afternoon and Tuesday evening.

The storm will drench the Southeast at the same time heavy rain descends on the Northwest and Northern California, Oregon and Washington. There, a phenomenon called an “atmospheric river” — a long, narrow column that carries most of the Earth’s water vapor through the atmosphere outside the tropics — will unleash a fire hose of rainfall.