Photograph by Alonso Cupul, European Pressphoto Agency

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Tourists observe the strong winds and waves created by tropical storm "Karen" at a beach in Cancun, Mexico, on October 3. Karen formed in the Caribbean sea near the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan.

Photograph by Alonso Cupul, European Pressphoto Agency

Is FEMA Ready for Tropical Storm Karen?

Gulf storm is expected to become a hurricane and make landfall soon.

State emergency management officials on the U.S. Gulf Coast have been assured that the recent shutdown of the federal government will not affect the Federal Emergency Management Administration's response to Tropical Storm Karen.

The storm is expected to come ashore late Saturday or early Sunday on the Gulf Coast. A hurricane watch has been issued from southern Louisiana to the western Florida Panhandle.

A hurricane watch means that winds exceeding 74 miles per hour (119 kilometers per hour) are possible within 36 hours. Although Karen could strengthen into a hurricane as it approaches the Gulf Coast, forecasters aren't certain that it will maintain that strength until it makes landfall.

Meanwhile, emergency management agencies in the area are conferring with FEMA officials as they prepare for the storm.

A call to FEMA's External Affairs office in Atlanta was answered by a recording saying that its staff had been furloughed because of the federal government shutdown. Calls to FEMA offices in the Gulf Coast region were answered by staffers not authorized to speak on the record. But state emergency management officials said they are talking to FEMA personnel and the  federal agency is preparing to respond to the storm.

"Our director locally has been in touch with FEMA, and he's received every assurance that FEMA will support us," said Mike Steele, communications director for the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge.

Samantha Plotkin, a spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management in Tallahassee, said her agency also has been conferring with FEMA officials to prepare for any necessary response after Tropical Storm Karen comes ashore.

As of 7 a.m., Tropical Storm Karen was about 335 miles (764 kilometers) south of New Orleans, moving north-northwest at about 10 miles per hour (19 kilometers per hour). Its peak winds were blowing at 60 miles per hour (105 kilometers per hour), making it a strong tropical storm.

But Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the storm will encounter dry air and atmospheric winds known as wind shear that will inhibit its strengthening as it moves northward.

Hurricanes draw their energy from warm water and warm, moist air. The dry air and winds blowing across the top of the hurricane will prevent it from intensifying, Blake said.

Matt Moreland, an emergency response meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Slidell, Louisiana, said New Orleans is under a tropical storm watch, meaning that winds of at least 35 miles per hour (56 kilometers per hour) are expected in the area within 36 hours. The storm's effects will be felt late Friday night or early Saturday morning, he said.

Moreland said the storm could come ashore anywhere from New Orleans eastward to Panama City, Florida. New Orleans could see as much as four inches (10 centimeters) of rain from the storm, he said.

The area southeast of New Orleans near the mouth of the Mississippi River is under a hurricane watch, Moreland said. Plaquemines Parish and Saint Bernard Parish—both southeast of New Orleans—could see up to five inches (13 centimeters) of rain, he said.

Moreland said the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans is likely to see more severe effects from the storm. The storm could cause flooding and heavy winds along the coast from Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle, he said.