for National Geographic News
A weakened tropical storm Ernesto moved into the warm waters of the Florida Straits today, regaining strength as it heads for landfall tonight in the upper Florida Keys.
Forecasters say there's only a remote possibility that Ernesto will become a hurricane again before it reaches the Keys (map of Florida).
What's more likely, however, is that Ernesto will become a strong tropical storm, with winds occasionally gusting to hurricane force.
A weather system is designated a tropical storm when its winds reach 39 miles (63 kilometers) an hour. It becomes a hurricane when its winds reach 74 miles (119 kilometers) an hour.
But Cuba's mountains disrupted the storm as it crossed the island, says meteorologist Eric Christensen at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
"It weakened significantly," Christensen said. "It became very disorganized as it emerged off the Cuban coast."
Ernesto got another jolt of energy, however, in the Florida Straits, which lie between Cuba's northern coast and the Florida Keys. Christensen said the storm started re-intensifying almost immediately when it reached the straits.
When its center hits the Keys around midnight ET, Ernesto could have sustained peak winds of about 63 miles (101 kilometers) an hour and even stronger gusts, Christensen says.
Forecasters expect Ernesto to move onto the lower Florida peninsula around Homestead after the storm crosses the Keys and then to move north on Wednesday.
"Homestead, Florida City, all through metro Miami-Dade [County] will see the impact," Christensen said. "Maybe slightly to the east of the center, there will be strong tropical storm-force winds with higher gusts. We're a little concerned about the rainfall potential for South Florida."
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