TAMPA — It was still two hours from dawn Friday morning when storm trackers at the National Hurricane Center detected a shift in the path of Hurricane Matthew.
The change was small — a mere 5-degree northeasterly tilt — but it may have spared Floridians billions of dollars in property damage and other destruction that accompanies a major storm making landfall, experts say.
For sure Matthew dealt more than a glancing blow to Florida, leaving hundreds of thousands without power and whipping up storm surges that flooded streets and ravaged the state's northeast coast.
But the hurricane's new path meant the 120 mph winds it was packing remained over the Atlantic Ocean, sparing large swaths of the east coast from the worst of the storm.
"As far as damage goes, they dodged a big bullet," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for Weather Underground. "It would easily have been a $10 billion storm had it come ashore."
Matthew's new bearing kept the eye of the storm — where winds are strongest — roughly 75 miles offshore from Palm Beach County. That narrowed to about 35 miles east of St. Augustine by Friday afternoon.
Even so, winds of more than 100 mph were measured along Florida's east coast. But those were typically gusts rather than the sustained winds that cause the most damage.
The storm's deviation was not a surprise to meteorologists since it was well within the forecast cone. What exactly caused it is tougher to gauge.
"Last night, when it was undergoing collapse of the inner eye wall, that may have made it jog a little more east," Masters said.
Forecasters at the National Weather Service in Ruskin said the storm was likely weakened and affected by wind shear and its western side passing over land.
"Anytime you get close proximity to land, you will start to get some effects," forecaster Rodney Wynn said.
Matthew's eye measured about 32 miles across, Wynn said. It had sustained winds of about 120 mph close to its center and 70 mph winds stretching out over a 50-mile radius.
That drop in wind speed is significant since the force wind exerts on homes and other buildings increases exponentially. For example, a 120-mph wind can exert about 50 percent more force than a wind of 100 mph.
University of Florida researchers deployed portable weather stations on Satellite Beach close to Melbourne ahead of Matthew's arrival. It recorded gusts up to 77 mph, said Kurt Gurley, a professor in the department of civil and coastal engineering.
"If that storm path had been just a small bump to the west then it would have resulted in a dramatically different story for wind speeds on land," Gurley said. "That would be a lot of property damage, particularly for homes that are older and weathered longer and built differently."
Previous hurricane seasons show just how much damage a Category 3 storm can cause. Hurricane Wilma, which made landfall near Marco Island in 2005, generated $10.3 billion in insurance claims, according to a National Hurricane Center report. It estimates that a similar amount in storm damage went unclaimed, making it one of the five costliest storms in U.S. history.
"If (Matthew) had taken the worst-case scenario, we would have had severe structural damage over many, many miles of east Florida coastline," Gurley said.
But Florida's near miss may simply have spread the damage and flooding over a wider swath of the state than a direct hit, warned Corene Matyas, a UF associate professor of geography who investigates the frequency and intensity of hurricanes.
Matthew knuckled along the coast for hundreds of miles, increasing the areas exposed to tropical storm-force winds, storm surge and rainfall, she said.
"The complete picture of damage has yet to emerge," she said.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.