Less than 24 hours after landing on forecasters' maps, Rina quickly strengthened Monday from a tropical storm to a hurricane.
Hurricane Rina, which formed as a Category 1 in the Caribbean after reaching tropical-storm status late Sunday, is expected to strengthen even more and become a major hurricane by Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said.
But it's likely steadily weaken starting in starting in a few days, forecasters said, and its long-term path is uncertain.
Some models show it posing a threat to the Gulf of Mexico, possibly brushing Cuba or South Florida, by next week.
The more likely route would send Rina toward Central America, then making a sharp right at Cuba and into the Atlantic — not touching Florida, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.
Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker said a late-week cold front in the Tampa Bay area likely would kick out Rina if the hurricane tried to come here.
Even if the cold front has passed by then, he said, the good news is that Gulf of Mexico's waters are cooler than Caribbean waters, minimizing the storm's action if it nears here.
Rina provides evidence that the tropics are still capable of churning out powerful storms this late in the season.
"We've seen some pretty serious storms develop in November as recently as last year," Feltgen said. "So, don't think you're out of the woods just yet."
The west coast of Florida is typically more likely to get hit by tropical storms in October and November because optimal conditions shift from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.
This time of year, cooling surface waters in the eastern Atlantic make storm formation there nearly impossible.
But western Caribbean waters are still above the 79 degrees generally considered necessary for tropical storm formation.
Combine that with light wind shear and the jet stream moving farther south, and experts say it's a perfect recipe for storms to form before the traditional end of the hurricane season on Nov. 30.
"There have been quite a few November hurricanes that have come very, very close to being a big problem," said Jeff Masters, former hurricane hunter and founder of Weather Underground.
The most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, Hurricane Wilma, initially followed a path similar to Rina's.
Wilma, the third Category 5 hurricane of 2005, made landfall on the southwest coast of Florida near Naples.
The only hurricane to hit Pinellas County in recorded history also began in a similar fashion. That storm, known as the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane, formed similarly late in the season and hit the Tampa Bay area 90 years ago, on Oct. 25.
Despite the similarities, experts said, there's no cause for alarm in this area.
"There's certainly always a chance, but the conditions it's going to run into don't look favorable," said Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay.
Rina, located late Monday near the Nicaragua-Honduras border with 80 mph sustained winds, was moving very slowly, around 3 mph. It was predicted to perhaps make landfall near the Yucatan Peninsula by the week's end.