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Start checking the weather; Tropical Storm Erika's plans for Florida still aren't clear

With each passing day, forecasters are growing more certain that Tropical Storm Erika will approach the Florida peninsula.

Pause. Don't panic.

It is still too early to know for sure whether Erika will actually hit the Sunshine State and just how strong it will be if it does. And there were signs late Wednesday that the storm could take a turn to the north and merely brush Florida's Atlantic coast.

THE LATEST: See the most current updates on this storm.

"Don't board anything up. We're not there yet," said WTSP 10Weather forecaster Bobby Deskins. "Make sure you have your hurricane kit ready to go, make sure you have a plan."

As of 11 p.m., Erika was 110 miles east of Antigua, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was moving west to west-northwest at about 16 mph, with 45 mph winds that extended 105 miles from its center. It was expected to pass over the Leeward Islands this morning and move near Puerto Rico later today.

"In this particular situation we're getting more and more confident in the track of this forecast, but remember the farther and farther you go out in time, there's more error" in predictions, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.

The five-day forecast model for Erika — that familiar cone with a black line in the middle — shows the storm approaching southeast Florida, north of Miami, early Monday. But Feltgen said forecast error — the margin of how far off the prediction could be — is 240 miles five days in advance and 180 miles four days out.

"Don't be focusing on the skinny black line," he said.

Indeed, late Wednesday some forecasts had the storm making a slight change of course.

"Some of the models are showing a turn on the coast," said Todd Barron, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "It's heading more toward the north, which would keep it a little more on the east side of the state or off the coast."

Wind shear over the Atlantic was knocking down the storm Wednesday, Feltgen said, but forecasters predicted Erika would remain a cyclone until it reached the southeastern Bahamas later this week, at which point it could pick up in intensity. How it survives that wind shear will determine its strength as it gets closer to Florida.

"If Erika makes it past this wind shear, there is no way in hell that storm is staying a Category 1," said WTSP 10Weather forecaster Jim Van Fleet. "It will get stronger."

Floridians should known by Friday night what's ahead, he said. "With four to five days to go, you can't bank on the track we're talking about today," he said. "Just have a plan."

If Erika does strengthen, Deskins said, it is more likely to move to the north and east, affecting the state's Atlantic coast while potentially sparing Tampa Bay.

If it weakens, he said, it could remain a tropical storm and slide into the Gulf of Mexico, a sodden prospect for Florida's west coast. Deskins said Erika might spin in the water off Tampa for a few days, "which is not what we need with all the flooding we've had."

The region is just a couple of weeks removed from a historic run of rain that left many parts of Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough under water. Several rivers, including the Withlacoochee and Alafia, remain at or near flood stage.

"It's just starting to dry out in some areas," said Tim Closterman, communications director for Pinellas County.

For now, Closterman said, local emergency management officials are monitoring forecasts to determine if and when to mobilize.

Even if the storm were to hit South Florida, hundreds of miles from Tampa Bay, it could still cut across to the Gulf Coast with stiff winds and rain. "There's not a lot of real estate in between (Tampa and Miami). It's relatively flat," Feltgen said.

What about all that talk of a strong El Nino suppressing storm formation in the Atlantic this year?

Disregard it, Deskins said. The only thing that matters now is landfall. In 1992, there were just seven named storms, he said, but one was Hurricane Andrew.

"That forecast for a quiet season means absolutely nothing for preparedness," Deskins said. "It means zilch."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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