JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Brisk wind and forceful rain from Tropical Storm Ophelia moved through this beachside community Wednesday, sending tourists scurrying inland and driving surfers out of the churning Atlantic.

The tropical depression off the coast strengthened into a tropical storm early Wednesday and could bring strong winds and heavy rain to central and northern Florida over the next few days.

The Jacksonville area is one of the few spots spared any serious damage from the six hurricanes that have hit the state in the last 13 months.

“We have to wait and see what (Ophelia) is going to do. The possibilities are endless,” said Steve Letro, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville.

Without strong steering currents, it was impossible to say what path Ophelia would take or whether it would reach hurricane strength, Letro said. Some computer models had the storm moving farther east and away from the coast, others had it going west, closer to shore, and some showed it heading east and then looping back toward the state.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Ophelia, the 15th named storm of the season, was centered 85 miles east-northeast of Cape Canaveral. It had top sustained winds near 50 mph, up from 40 mph earlier in the day, and was nearly stationary.

A tropical storm warning, meaning winds exceeding 39 mph are possible within 24 hours, was canceled for areas south of Cocoa Beach but remained in effect north to Flagler Beach.

A tropical storm watch, meaning those conditions are possible within 36 hours, was in effect from Flagler Beach to Fernandina Beach.

“This one is going to keep everybody on the edge of their seats for quite some time,” Letro said.

Ken Lloyd, general manager of a beachside restaurant and bar, was born in 1964 during Hurricane Dora, the last major hurricane to hit this beachside community.

“I’m worried about it. They just don’t know what it is going to do,” Lloyd said.

In Volusia County, which suffered damage in three of last year’s hurricanes, plans were being made to set up two shelters Thursday.

“We’re just opening them in an extreme abundance of caution,” said Dave Byron, a county spokesman.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Nate intensified into a hurricane south of Bermuda, and Tropical Storm Maria was upgraded to a hurricane again over the open ocean. Neither was considered a threat to the United States.

At 11 p.m., Hurricane Nate had top sustained winds of 85 mph. It was centered about 175 miles south-southwest of Bermuda and was drifting northeast at 6 mph. It could pass near or just south of Bermuda by Thursday, forecasters said.

Forecasters said new observations showed that Maria was still a hurricane with 75 mph sustained winds. It was moving northeast near 14 mph toward the colder waters of the north Atlantic and was centered about 940 miles east-northeast of Bermuda and could lose its tropical characteristics Thursday.

Maria and Nate were the fifth and sixth hurricanes of the Atlantic season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Peak storm activity typically occurs from the end of August through mid-September.


On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

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