National Hurricane Center issues tropical storm watches and warnings for Florida’s Gulf Coast.

A roiling ball of thunderstorms is sliding toward the Gulf Coast, building up a dangerous storm surge at the twilight of hurricane season.

The disturbance was identified by the National Hurricane Center as Potential Tropical Cyclone 16 on Thursday – a trigger for it to issue tropical storm watches and warnings from the toe of Louisiana through Florida’s Big Bend region.

A storm surge warning also was put up for Florida areas from Indian Pass to Clearwater Beach, where a wash of saltwater could rise up to 5 feet above ground level.

With a storm-nurturing environment ahead, forecasters said the 14th named storm of the 2019 season - Nestor - could form late Thursday or Friday.

As of 5 p.m., the official hurricane center forecast had the system making landfall on Florida’s Panhandle on Friday night into Saturday morning, with a swift, but wet, drive through states from Alabama to Virginia.

“It doesn’t make a difference if it’s tropical or subtropical, it will still cause a pretty good surge into Apalachicola Bay,” said AccuWeather hurricane expert Dan Kottlowski. “One thing is parts of the Panhandle and the deep South have been in a drought so five to six inches of rain may not be a bad thing.”

The hurricane center began issuing advisories on “potential” tropical cyclones in 2017 for storms that they have a high confidence will form and impact land. It gives officials the opportunity to send out watches and warnings in advance of the storm actually forming.

>>RELATED: Don’t relax yet, hurricanes love Florida in October

Here are the 4 PM CDT Key Messages on Potential Tropical Cyclone #Sixteen. Latest information at: https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB pic.twitter.com/njamy8XE4k

— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) October 17, 2019

The official forecast is calling for the would-be Nestor to top out with 50 mph winds.

“Right now it’s just business as usual,” said Kathy McQuaig, who worked the front desk Thursday at the Coombs Inn & Suites near the mouth of the Apalachicola River. “We’ve been very lucky this year, but things can change quickly.”

At 5 p.m., the system was about 570 miles southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River with 40-mph sustained winds. It was moving north at 7 mph.

While 40-mph winds are the threshold to gain tropical storm status, hurricane center forecasters said the system was lacking a well-defined center.

“These things can take a long time to cook (remember watching Michael for a bout a week last year before it became a depression?),” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences. “While it could end up near where Michael made landfall last October, there are zero indications that this will intensify much.”

>>RELATED: What’s a subtropical storm and why do they keep calling it a cyclone?

Senior NHC hurricane specialist Jack Beven called the forecast a “complicated weather situation.”

“Regardless of the exact evolution, portions of the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico will experience strong winds, locally heavy rains, and storm surge Friday and Saturday,” Beven said in the 5 p.m. advisory. “Similar impacts are expected across portions of the Atlantic coast of the Southeastern United States Saturday and Sunday.”

The system will touch more than just the Panhandle. The Jacksonville National Weather Service has issued a gale watch through Saturday night with the possibility of winds reaching 40 mph.

Kottlowski said Jacksonville’s potential position in the northeast quadrant of the system Friday night will increase the chances of tornadoes.

“Any storm like this has the potential of producing tornadoes on the east and northeast sides,” Kottlowski said. “Areas north of Tampa, west of Orlando and up into Jacksonville should be on alert.”

States including Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and even Virginia could also feel impacts from the system, which is forecast to remain a tropical storm as it zips its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

If the current track cone holds true, Georgia would begin feeling tropical-storm-force winds early Saturday. They would reach the Carolinas Saturday afternoon and Virginia early Sunday before the system moves off the coast later in the day.

Hurricane forecasters are predicting two to four inches of rain along the system’s path with up to five inches in isolated areas.

Odds increasing of #Gulf storm this weekend...
This has been a feature of interest going back to last *Thursday* when it was a disorganized blob off the east coast of Nicaragua. These things can take a long time to cook. https://t.co/P11tNrvWSW #96L? pic.twitter.com/6TBpmq9T5i

— Brian McNoldy (@BMcNoldy) October 16, 2019

McNoldy said only seven named storms developed in the western Gulf of Mexico after Oct. 1 since 1960, including Tropical Storm Josephine in 1996.

While Josephine’s wind speeds never reached hurricane strength, they did peak at 70 mph, and the storm made landfall in the Big Bend region with a more than nine-foot storm surge.

The broad area of low pressure that spun up Potential Tropical Cyclone 16 is called a Central American gyre and can be the impetus for storms this time of year in the Gulf of Mexico.

A gyre was responsible for Tropical Storm Narda, which developed off of Mexico's southwest coast Sept. 28. Last year, Category 5 Hurricane Michael was born out of a small-scale area of low pressure that became embedded in a large cyclonic gyre over Central America, according to the National Hurricane Center's post-tropical cyclone report on Michael.

In 2017, Hurricane Nate also formed from a gyre. It came ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi as a Category 1 hurricane on Oct. 7-8.

Zooming in on what is now Invest #96L in the Bay of Campeche. Visible low-level cloud motions suggests a closed vortex is forming near the deep convection around 20N/96W.

If trends continue, TC genesis may not be too far away, within the next 12-24h. pic.twitter.com/qY8p5nr7m2

— Philippe Papin (@pppapin) October 16, 2019

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards posted a message to social media Wednesday reminding residents that October is still hurricane season.

We are still in the peak activity of hurricane season, and now is a good time to get prepared and #GetAGamePlan for your families, pets and businesses. Continue to monitor local media outlets and follow @GOHSEP for the latest weather updates and information. #lagov #lalege #lawx

— John Bel Edwards (@LouisianaGov) October 16, 2019

National Weather Service meteorologists in Miami also are watching the potential for development in the Gulf of Mexico as it might bring showers and funnel clouds on Saturday as the low interacts with a stationary front.

“Drenching rain and localized flooding will be the main impact from the storm as it moves along over the Southeastern states,” AccuWeather meteorologists said. “Urban flooding can occur even though much of the Southeast states could stand more rain due to ongoing drought conditions.”

The most recent #hurricane to make continental US (CONUS) landfall this late in the calendar year is Wilma (2005), and the most recent CONUS landfalling tropical storm this late in the calendar year is Mitch (1998). Sandy (2012) became post-tropical before landfall. #96L pic.twitter.com/rmsE2471m0

— Philip Klotzbach (@philklotzbach) October 16, 2019

Kmiller@pbpost.com

@Kmillerweather