Tropical Storm Florence Eyes Bermuda

Tropical Storm Florence held its strength in the open Atlantic early Thursday, still far from the United States but large enough that forecasters warned it could create high surf and rip currents along the East Coast within the next five days.

The storm's forecast path puts it over the Bermuda area Monday or Tuesday, forecasters said.

"The concern would be Bermuda at this point, how close the destructive force winds will move toward it," said Dave Roberts, a Navy forecaster at the National Hurricane Center.

Florence had maximum sustained winds near 50 mph Thursday morning and tropical storm force winds extending up to 290 miles from its center. Its sustained winds were expected to strengthen Thursday and Friday and pass the 74 mph threshold for a hurricane by the time in nears Bermuda.

At 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), the storm was centered 645 miles east of the Northern Leeward Islands and about 1,115 miles southeast of Bermuda. It was moving west-northwest at about 8 mph.

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Even though the forecast shows the storm's center will likely remain off the U.S. coast, Florence's large size meant that ocean swells could cause high surf and rip currents from the mid-Atlantic states northward by Tuesday, said Stacy Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist at the hurricane center.

Florence developed in the peak of hurricane season in warm Atlantic waters, the source of energy for storm development this time of year. While warm enough to spur storm intensification, forecasters said those waters are not as warm as last year's storm season, which had a record 28 named storms and 15 hurricanes, including Katrina.

The 2006 Atlantic hurricane season has not been as rough as initially feared. The National Hurricane Center lowered its forecast in August to between 12 and 15 named storms and seven to nine hurricanes.

Florence follows on the heels of Tropical Storm Ernesto, which was briefly the season's first hurricane before weakening and blowing up the East Coast last week. The storm was blamed for nine U.S. deaths, delayed the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis and blacked out thousands of homes and businesses from North Carolina to New York.

Click here to track Tropical Storm Florence.