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 » 2006 Forecast  | Saffir-Simpson scale  |  Your stories

Ophelia could threaten Florida

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Ophelia churns off the Florida coast in this satellite image taken at 12:03 a.m. ET Friday.

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(CNN) -- Tropical Storm Ophelia, churning off the east coast of Florida, briefly intensified to hurricane status before weakening slightly and being downgraded early Friday, although forecasters warned the storm may restrengthen in the next day or so.

Forecasters also warned the storm may make a loop out in the Atlantic before heading for the Sunshine State, rather than wandering out to sea.

At 5 a.m. ET Friday, the center of Ophelia was located about 115 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida, with maximum sustained winds of near 65 mph with higher gusts. It was moving toward the north-northeast at near 6 mph and was expected to turn to the northeast during the next 24 hours, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.

The storm became the seventh hurricane of the busy 2005 Atlantic season Thursday night. The five-day forecast from the hurricane center shows Ophelia moving out to sea over the weekend, then making a loop on Monday that changes its direction from east to west and puts it on a path toward the east coast of Florida. (Watch video of storm-weary Floridians preparing for another blow -- 1:50)

However, because of the erratic nature of hurricane movement, such long-range forecasts often change.

A looping path, while not common, would be eerily familiar to residents of the hurricane-weary Sunshine State. Last September, Hurricane Jeanne appeared to be heading out to sea when it made a loop north of the Bahamas and came back to hit the east coast of Florida as a Category 2 hurricane. It then moved up the center of the state, killing six people.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for the east coast of Florida from Sebastian Inlet, south of Melbourne, to Flagler Beach, an area that was being lashed by the edge of Ophelia Thursday afternoon.

A tropical storm watch was in effect for northeast Florida from Flagler Beach to Fernandina Beach, which means tropical storm conditions are possible within 36 hours.

Forecasters said 1 to 3 inches of rain were expected across portions of central and northern Florida.

Ophelia is now one of three hurricanes churning simultaneously in the Atlantic. Nate, with sustained winds of 85 mph, was heading out into the Atlantic after brushing by Bermuda earlier Thursday. Maria, with 75 mph sustained winds, was well out in the ocean and no threat to land.

Just a week into September -- historically the most active month for tropical activity -- the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season has already seen 15 named storms, seven of which reached hurricane strength with winds of at least 74 mph. Four of those became major hurricanes, with sustained winds of at least 111 mph.

According to the National Hurricane Center, the historical averages for a hurricane season are 10 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes. Those numbers have already been exceeded this season, which doesn't end until November 30.

The largest number of named storms ever recorded was 21 in 1933, a record that will be broken if just seven more storms develop in the next 12 weeks. And if that happens, the hurricane center will run out of names for the first time since it adopted the system of assigning names to storms in 1953.

The letters Q, U, X, Y and Z aren't used, because few names begin with those letters, so the 21st and last name on this year's hurricane list is Wilma. After that, Greek letters will be used to designate storms, beginning with Alpha.

The largest number of hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic was 12 back in 1969, according to the hurricane center, and the largest number of major hurricanes was eight in 1950.

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