Tropical Storm Richard was expected to reach hurricane strength this weekend and could threaten Central America before turning toward Florida, experts warned on Thursday.
But if the storm system follows its projected path across Central America and Mexico, it could become less of a threat to Florida and the Gulf Coast when it reaches the Gulf of Mexico again.
"The more we get rid of this storm over land the better off we'll be," said National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Noah.
The storm could reach hurricane strength Saturday, make landfall Sunday night in Central America or Mexico and spin into the eastern Gulf of Mexico by Tuesday.
The storm was reported to be 235 miles southeast of Grand Cayman on Thursday evening. It had sustained winds near 40 mph with higher gusts. It was drifting southeast at 2 mph, according to the forecast, and was expected to turn west while strengthening in the next few days.
Richard was expected to drop four to eight inches of rain over Jamaica, with as much as 12 inches in isolated locations. The heavy rains could produce flash floods and mud slides, the hurricane center said. Honduran officials issued a tropical storm watch Thursday from the Nicaraguan border west to Limon.
Richard's projected track has the storm passing through the mountains of Central America and going over the Yucatán Peninsula. If it continues on that path, experts said, that could weaken the storm before it enters the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
"If it moves through there, the land will rip it apart," said Mike Clay, senior meteorologist for Bay News 9. "There may not be much of it left by the time it emerges (into water). If it were to make it back into the gulf, conditions would be pretty hostile for any redevelopment.
"Good news for us. Bad news if you're looking for rain."
But forecasters still encouraged residents to review their hurricane preparedness plans. They cautioned that many factors — including a massive low-pressure system descending over the gulf — could dramatically alter Richard's course.
"When it gets into the gulf, we still have energy in the water from the heat," Noah said. "People still need to watch to make sure Richard doesn't do anything unexpected."
The tropical storm, which formed Thursday in the Caribbean Sea, is the 17th named storm of a very active hurricane season. So far, though, none have made landfall in the U.S.
But hurricanes that form in October in the Caribbean Sea pose the most serious concern for west Florida.
The last major storm to hit Florida's west coast was Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. Wilma is one of the strongest and largest hurricanes recorded, a gargantuan 180 miles wide with winds topping out at 165 mph. Wilma hit Florida as a Category 3.