As Hurricane Laura prepared to make landfall as a powerful Category 4 storm Wednesday night with what could be an "unsurvivable" storm surge and high winds, forecasters predicted the storm could take a northerly track through the South and parts of Tennessee as a tropical depression.
A Category 4 hurricane has winds of 130-156 mph that can cause catastrophic damage, down trees and power poles and leave coastal residents without power for weeks or months, according to the National Hurricane Center.
For folks in the Chattanooga region, the impact from Laura will come as showers and storms going into Friday night and especially Saturday, according to chief meteorologist Paul Barys at Times Free Press news partner WRCB-TV Channel 3.
"When a hurricane approaches usually the weather you are getting will stay pretty much the same until the remains of the hurricane get closer," Barys said in his Wednesday weather blog. "So I am expecting just a few isolated showers on Thursday and Friday with highs near 90 Thursday and in the mid-80s Friday."
The storm will become more noticeable as the weekend arrives.
"Friday night will see the remains of Laura getting closer so the winds will pick up at 15 to 25 mph with stronger gusts," Barys said. "A few showers and possibly a storm or two will develop on Saturday.
"The weather pattern will turn back to the summer pattern that we are more used to on Sunday with isolated showers," he said.
Across Chattanooga's tri-state region, forecasters with the National Weather Service say where Laura dumps its rain will depend on the path it takes after landfall.
Tennessee in the first half of 2020 already experienced the second wettest of any year on the record books, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA uses its system of 49 dams on the Tennessee River and its tributaries to help control the flow of the fifth-largest river in the U.S.
A record 42.98 inches of rain soaked Chattanooga in the first half of 2020, nearly 16 inches more than usual, according to rainfall totals recorded by the National Weather Service at Lovell Field. The only year with more rainfall in Chattanooga was 1929, when 45.44 inches of rain fell in the first six months of the year.
TVA reported in January that 2019 was the second-wettest year on record in the Tennessee Valley after 2018's record-setting precipitation, so rainfall accumulations have been high three years in a row, with three of the six wettest years in history in the Tennessee River Basin coming within the past decade.
Mostly cloudy with a 20% chance of rain and thunderstorms
Partly cloudy with a 10% chance of rain
Cloudy with an 80% chance of rain
Cloudy with a 20% chance of rain
Partly sunny with a 30% chance of rain
Source: WRCB-TV Channel 3 as of 4 p.m. Aug. 26, 2020
At the weather service office in Morristown, Tennessee, which makes predictions for East Tennessee and the Chattanooga region, meteorologist Tim Doyle said Wednesday that despite Laura's strength at landfall, its predicted track now means showers and thunderstorms but winds and major flooding shouldn't be a problem for the eastern half of the state.
"Rainfall looks like about an inch on Friday into Saturday, maybe an inch or an inch-and-a-half for the plateau counties," Doyle said of East Tennessee as a whole.
As a region, rain chances on Saturday will be between 90-100%, but what most people will experience will be much like the afternoon deluges seen in pop-up thunderstorms in recent days, except the rainfall will be over larger areas for a longer duration, Doyle said.
Meteorologist Jennifer Saari, at the weather service office in Huntsville, Alabama, said the main storm path should swing west and north of Northeast Alabama's DeKalb and Jackson counties, though localized wind and heavy rains could create short-term problems in some communities.
At some point after making landfall, the storm will turn east. Where that turn is made will determine which states fall into its path as the tropical system boomerangs back toward the Atlantic Ocean, the weather service forecasters said.
Saari said residents in and near the storm's wide path should remain alert for severe weather developments as the system makes its way through because the storm path could still shift.
TVA spokesperson Travis Brickey said Wednesday that the federal utility is "keeping a very close eye on Laura and how it might impact the Tennessee River Valley."
The Tennessee River traces a 652-mile-long path from East Tennessee south into Alabama and back north through the middle portion of Tennessee to the Ohio River on the Kentucky-Ohio state line, according to TVA data. Laura's forecasted path comes closest to the western portion of the Tennessee.
"Earlier in the week we started pulling down the reservoirs on the main stem Tennessee River to the bottom of their operating ranges," Brickey said via email. "The large tributary reservoirs are all below their flood guides. The system is in good shape."
TVA will stay in touch with the weather service as Laura plows through and forecasts are updated, Brickey said.
"Our River Forecast Center is staffed around the clock and continuously monitors river levels and flows and adjusts operating plans ahead of and in response to weather events in real time," he said.
Brickey said he also wanted to stress to Tennessee River property owners with docks to stay alert.
"[W]eather can be very unpredictable and conditions change rapidly," he said. "People with interests along the river, like property owners with docks, should be constantly aware of changing conditions and stay tuned into the [weather service] for warnings and alerts."
TVA will also provide updates through its social media channels, he said.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.