At 8 a.m. EST Thursday, the National Hurricane Center issued hurricane and tropical storm watches for the northern Gulf Coast, as tropical storm Karen gains strength in the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico.

Karen currently sits about 500 miles south of the Mississippi River, with wind speeds reaching about 60 mph. The storm looks set to hit between Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle sometime this coming weekend and has a "near 100 percent chance" of becoming a hurricane.

The hurricane watch extends from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Indian Pass, Florida. It does not include New Orleans or nearby Lake Pontchartrain. The tropical storm watch, though, reaches west of Grand Isle to Morgan City and includes metropolitan New Orleans, Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain.

From the NHC:

A hurricane watch means that hurricane conditions are possible within the watch area. A watch is typically issued 48 hours before the anticipated first occurrence of tropical-storm-force winds ... conditions that make outside preparations difficult or dangerous.

A tropical storm watch means that tropical storm conditions are possible within the watch area ... generally within 48 hours.

[National Hurricane Center, Brevard Times]