Tropical Storm Fay may have skipped Tampa Bay, but it isn't done with Florida. ¶ Early this morning the storm should enter the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral. But forecasters say it likely will whip back into North Florida, possibly as a hurricane, or head to Georgia.
"Fay has really been full of surprises, and it's still got a few more left,'' said Mike Pigott, meteorologist with the AccuWeather forecast service.
The biggest surprise came Tuesday afternoon, when Fay grew stronger as it crossed Florida, increasing its sustained winds to near 65 mph. Tropical storms normally weaken over land. Late Tuesday, the winds subsided to 50 mph.
Forecasters could only speculate that the marshy Everglades and Lake Okeechobee supplied the storm with enough warm moisture to fuel it.
The National Hurricane Center responded by issuing a hurricane watch along the Atlantic coastline of North Florida and South Georgia.
"Anyone want to write a Ph.D. thesis on this one?" wrote Jeff Masters, founder of www.weatherunderground.com.
Fay also has caused bewilderment because of its constantly changing track, but it's not unusual for storms to wander all over the map.
"You get plenty of erratic storm motions," said Eric Blake of the National Hurricane Center.
Tropical storms full of swirling heat have a natural tendency to move northward up the globe, toward cooler climates.
But storms don't follow straight lines. They bounce off areas of high pressure and move like magnets toward areas of low pressure. You can see these areas on a map, but the map constantly changes as Earth warms, cools and rotates.
Fay's weird wobbles on Monday, which kept it away from the Tampa Bay area, owed a lot to the dynamics of the weather map.
On Sunday and early Monday, a high pressure ridge was expected to act like a buffer that would prevent Fay from drifting to the east. It looked like it would go north from Cuba, possibly to Tampa Bay.
But the ridge didn't set up as quickly as meteorologists expected, which allowed the storm to drift east after all. After slamming the Keys, Fay made landfall near Cape Romano in southwest Florida.
Now, as Fay re-emerges into the Atlantic, that ridge of high pressure is expected to set up like a strong barrier, said meteorologist Pigott.
Fay should bump into that ridge Thursday or later and then bounce back toward Florida for the third time like a slow-motion billiard ball. It could use the time over the warm Atlantic water to strengthen into a hurricane.
"It looks like it could be a boomerang storm," Gov. Charlie Crist said.
One scenario even has Fay crossing the state toward the Gulf of Mexico.
If Fay does hit land again, one result seems sure: "Extremely heavy rain," Blake said.
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.