Update: Will Tropical Storm Fernand form in Gulf?

People on the northern Gulf Coast are watching an area of low pressure that crossed the Yucatan Peninsula on Thursday to see whether it will become Tropical Storm Fernand now that it has entered the southwestern Gulf of Mexico.

The National Hurricane Center on Friday morning described the shower and thunderstorm activity as disorganized and “located well to the east and northeast of the low center,” but recommended keeping an eye on the system’s progress through the weekend.

“Environmental conditions could become more favorable for development if the low moves toward the west or west-northwest over the next couple of days,” the center said.

According to the National Hurricane Center, the system has a 50 percent chance of becoming a tropical storm, with wind speeds between 39 mph and 73 mph, in the next two days and a 60 percent chance of becoming a tropical storm in the next five days.

“Nothing to get too worked up about, but it bears watching,” Barry Keim, Louisiana state climatologist, said on Thursday.

“Obviously, that’s what we’re watching right now,” Keim said. “The reality, based on what you see, they don’t know what it’s going to do.”

If the storm moves into the central Gulf of Mexico, it’s more likely to head north toward Louisiana, Keim said.

In the meantime, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness has been meeting with local, state and federal emergency management officials through conference calls, said Mike Steele, communication director, in an email Thursday.

The conference calls have included people from the National Weather Service, south Louisiana parishes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, Louisiana National Guard, state agencies and others, he said.

More meetings are planned Friday when the National Weather Service says there should be a much clearer forecast on the storm, Steele said.

Heavy rains and storm surge continue to be the biggest concerns of a potential storm, he said.

Some preparations already are being taken. The Corps of Engineers announced it closed the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway barge gate at the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier.

The surge barrier is a 1.8-mile long, 25-foot high wall that crosses the marsh near Lake Borgne to connect flood protection in New Orleans East to protections in St. Bernard Parish.

Closing the 150-foot wide barge gate on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway involves swinging a barge into place and sinking it, a process that takes about four hours.

The gate is one of three that allows boat navigation through the barrier, and the corps’ procedures call for it to be closed if a potential storm is within 96 hours of hitting New Orleans.

Other gates within the hurricane protection system will be closed based on what level of storm surge, if any, is expected.

At the same time, Tropical Storm Erin continued to move across the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday, but that system is at least a week away from getting to the Caribbean, Keim said.