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Hurricane Matthew could loop back toward Florida but as a much weaker storm, experts say

As if the first major hurricane in years pressing toward the state couldn't get worse, several projections show Matthew could loop around and strike Florida again next week.

It's daunting news for a packed east coast bracing itself for the storm's inevitable impact, but experts say there's no need to panic. If the loop-around ends up happening, Matthew will most likely be a shell of its former self, hardly comparable to the double-hitter in 2004 when hurricanes Frances and Jeanne pummeled the Treasure Coast weeks apart from each other.

"Don't freak out," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for Weather Underground. "It's going to be a much weaker storm the second time around, and, yeah, it will be a bit of a psychological shock, but the bottom line is the science of it says this second go-around is going to be really no big deal."

RELATED COVERAGE: Follow our live blog for the latest on Hurricane Matthew.

The path of the storm is dictated by steering currents that are part of a high-pressure system over the Atlantic Ocean, called the Bermuda High, Masters said. The shape and intensity of that system is constantly changing, influenced by storms in the north. In this case, the system is shifting across the east coast, blocking the storm from continuing north.

"It's the atmosphere in action," Masters said.

Two early models showed that happening, an illustration that "was worthy of profuse profanity," Masters wrote Wednesday on his website. Projections as of Thursday afternoon show the storm heading back toward the Bahamas then moving toward South Florida

The turn south is expected to happen on Tuesday off the coast of South Carolina, said Rick Davis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The same currents that steer the storm are anticipated to weaken it. By the time it comes back, wind speeds will sit at about 40 mph.

Davis and Masters said the less-than-ideal path has happened with storms in the past for the same reasons. Matthew already did it once in the Caribbean, Davis said. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne took a loop far off the coast before heading straight into Central Florida. One of the longest-lived hurricanes in history, Ginger, made a giant loop in the Atlantic back before chugging into North Carolina.

"It's not that uncommon," Davis said.

Another system, too, is influencing Matthew: Hurricane Nicole, which shifted from tropical storm to hurricane status Thursday afternoon in the Atlantic. Nicole is pressing Matthew toward Florida. The storms are about 1,000 miles apart and are expected to stay that way, Davis said.

But Masters said there are models showing the two could get close enough to interact with each other, at which point they would start to rotate around a common center, making it tough to predict Matthew's long-range path.

At that point, "all bets are off," he said.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 445-4157 or Follow @kathrynvarn.