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Desert sandstorm heads toward Florida

As if the heat weren't enough, a sand cloud drifting from Africa could bother people with respiratory problems.

Published July 24, 2005

Floridians can't seem to catch a break when it comes to the weather.

Though Florida was spared the rains and winds from Tropical Storm Franklin, warmth from the storm's core blasted the state Saturday, pushing heat-index readings to dangerous levels.

On top of that, there's a sandstorm coming. Seriously.

Though forecasters think the sandstorm will do little more than dazzle up the sunsets, it could tickle the throats of people with respiratory problems. The cloud of dust, which is about the size of the continental United States, originated in the Sahara Desert and could be over Florida early this week.

"This is not going to be a tremendous event, but it will be kind of interesting," said Jim Lushine, a severe weather expert with Miami's weather bureau.

Scott Kelly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Melbourne, said Saturday that the cloud - which could dissipate - may not have much effect on the rest of the country.

"Maybe South Texas or Mexico if that dust cloud keeps moving westward, but nothing north of Florida, unless a weather system can dive southward and pull that air northward," he said.

The dust outbreak starts when tropical waves lift sand from the Sahara a couple miles into the sky, reducing it to even smaller particles. The dust drifts west on a dry tropical wave.

If the dust is concentrated enough, the cloud could create some issues for people with respiratory problems, said Ken Larson, a natural resource specialist with the Broward County Environmental Protection Department.

"If somebody is subject to a respiratory condition, if they see hazy skies, they might want to take a little more precaution, not participate in strenuous activity and stay indoors," Larson said.

Some scientists think that dust clouds impede the formation of tropical storms, which can eventually turn into hurricanes.

If that's the case, Florida may welcome more sandstorms to combat hurricanes that have battered the state for the past year.

Florida has apparently dodged Tropical Storm Franklin, which on Saturday had sustained winds of 70 mph; just below the 74 mph threshold to be classified as a hurricane.

But the storm's furnace-like blasts of warm energy led to intense heat, high humidity and oppressive heat-index readings across the state.

At 4 p.m., according to National Weather Service data, Panama City's heat index was 111, when combining its 95-degree temperature with 58 percent humidity. It felt like 110 in Pensacola, 107 degrees in Vero Beach and Jacksonville, 104 in Miami Beach, and 100 in Tallahassee and Key West.

And forecasters warned the heat and humidity could be higher Sunday - also increasing the dangers of exhaustion and other heat-related problems.

Tampa Bay's weather wasn't as affected by the storm's heat. The high at Tampa International Airport Saturday was 91 and the heat index was 97, said Tom Dougherty, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

Dougherty said temperatures will be about the same today, though there is a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms this morning and a chance for more storms in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, tropical storm warnings and watches were issued in Mexico for a tropical depression that formed Saturday and could become Tropical Storm Gert.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 24, 2005, 00:21:06]

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