Hurricane Irene was intensifying faster than anticipated as it continued on its path toward the United States and could become a major hurricane late Tuesday or early Wednesday, experts said.
National Hurricane Center forecasters predicted Irene would likely become a Category 3 storm by Wednesday, with winds blowing from 111 to 130 miles per hour.
As the storm continues over warm Caribbean waters with little wind shear to hamper its growth, NHC forecasters predicted it could intensify to a Category 4 storm as it blows by Florida's east coast Thursday said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman with the hurricane center. Gusts in Category 4 storms range between 131 to 155 miles per hour.
Although the path of the storm remains uncertain, NHC experts said Irene will likely miss Florida altogether, with its core instead threatening landfall in the mid-Atlantic —states from North Carolina all the way up to Maryland have been advised to watch the storm's path.
The hurricane could make a direct U.S. hit by late Saturday, Feltgen said.
Irene, which is moving at about 12 mph in a west-northwest direction, is predicted to reach the Bahamas Tuesday.
Florida's east coast will likely experience some tropical-storm-strength winds, beach erosion, rain and rip tides, as the storm travels east of the peninsula Thursday, experts said.
Florida has not been hit by a hurricane since October 2005, when Wilma pounded the south of the state, causing five deaths, according to the NHC.
A hurricane warning has been issued for the north coast of the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern to central Bahamas. Haiti has also been encouraged to keep its eye on the storm.
If Irene stays on its current track, Tampa Bay might see slightly lower rain chances later in the week, according to Bay News 9 Meteorologist Juli Marquez.
"I don't think they'd completely go away, but I don't think we'd have as much coverage," she said.
The forecast calls for 30 to 40 percent chance of rain later in the week and this weekend. Rain chances on Tuesday and Wednesday are 50 percent, according to Bay News 9.
Thursday and Friday are expected to be breezy.