TAMPA — It's the strongest storm to threaten the sunshine state since Hurricane Wilma clawed its way through the Atlantic 11 years ago, but whether Hurricane Matthew will unleash carnage on Florida or avoid the state all together remains to be seen.
Matthew grew into a Category 5 storm Friday night as it crossed the Caribbean Sea on a course that could have it pounding Jamaica within days, narrowly missing Florida. The National Hurricane Center reported the storm was moving west at about 7 mph early today with sustained winds of 160 mph.
A storm with sustained winds of at least 111 mph can be classified as a major hurricane.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Matthew should continue moving west at a slower speed today, veering west-northwest tonight with a turn northwest on Sunday to strike the northern Bahamas by 2 p.m. Wednesday.
If it moves farther west in the "cone of uncertainty," as the graphic depiction of the range of possible storm tracks is sometimes described, Matthew could brush past Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
It's more likely that the Tampa Bay area will see little evidence of the storm this weekend into the middle of next week, apart from some breezy weather Tuesday through Thursday and lower rain chances due to dry air wrapped into the storm, said Rick Davis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. There could be some stray showers from the storm's outer bands.
Still, forecasters are continuing to closely monitor Matthew's track, and residents should make sure they have a hurricane preparedness plan in place.
"There's a lot of atmospheric steering going on, currents that will impact the storm in the next few days," Davis said. "Because we're dealing with Mother Nature, we're fairly confident it will turn to the north, but the exact timing and location of that turn could have it impact the state or keep it out to sea."
The storm could strengthen and fluctuate in intensity throughout the weekend, and appears to want to stay just off the east coast, said 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Bobby Deskins. If Matthew continues floating around a ridge of pressure called the Bermuda High, it could travel in between Florida and the Bahamas without hitting land.
"Right now we just don't know what it'll look like," Deskins said.
The center of the hurricane was projected to cross the Caribbean Sea today and reach near Jamaica on Sunday.
The storm was large enough that it could affect the entire island of Jamaica, and the first effects of the storm may be felt there starting today.
Jamaica activated its National Emergency Operations Center, and Prime Minister Andrew Holness called an urgent meeting of parliament to discuss preparations for the storm.
Parts of the country, especially the eastern tip and higher elevations, could get up to 25 inches of rain in some areas, with an average rainfall of 10 to 15 inches. The capital, Kingston, is in the southeastern corner of Jamaica and was expected to experience flooding. Mud slides also are likely.
Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 45 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extended outward up to 205 miles.
Matthew caused at least one death when it entered the Caribbean on Wednesday, with officials in St. Vincent reporting a 16-year-old boy was crushed by a boulder as he tried to clear a blocked drain.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.