TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Ophelia regained hurricane strength Friday as it inched away from Florida’s east coast, but state officials said the storm remains a serious threat to the state.
“I will almost guarantee you that somebody is going to die this weekend,” said State Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate, referring to surfers likely to be drawn to the heavy waves – and dangerous rip current – Ophelia is still churning up.
Surfers aren’t the only people who should be wary, officials said. They predict that Ophelia will re-strengthen into a hurricane soon – and that it could yet target Florida.
“Use caution,” Fugate said. “This is still a very dangerous situation.”
At 5 p.m., maximum sustained winds were at 75 miles per hour and the storm was 175 miles east-northeast of Daytona Beach, Fla., or about 220 miles south-southeast of Charleston, S.C. It was moving to the northeast near 7 mph, and was expected to follow this path late Friday and today.
Even though Ophelia, which had been nearly stationary since Wednesday, has finally begun to drift away from Florida, forecasters said they expect that it will loop back around sometime in the next three to five days. That could leave the storm aimed somewhere between Florida and the Carolinas.
Whether or not Ophelia becomes the seventh hurricane to strike Florida in just over a year depends largely on how far it moves out to sea before looping, state meteorologist Ben Nelson said. The farther it moves out before turning, he said, the more likely it is to miss the peninsula.
And now that Ophelia is moving again, Nelson said, it will almost certainly travel over warmer waters that will pump it back to hurricane-strength.
Nelson said it could swell even beyond Category 1.
The strengthening also means that the northeastern Florida coast, which Ophelia has been grinding against for two days, isn’t likely to see much improvement in weather conditions over the weekend.
“The impacts along the coast aren’t really going to change that much, especially in east-central Florida and northeast Florida,” Nelson said.
And state officials say Ophelia has already done significant damage to the eastern beaches.