msnbc.com news services
updated 9/7/2006 3:34:11 PM ET 2006-09-07T19:34:11

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

“Since the wind field is so large, it will send a swell out ahead of the system. That looks like it will affect much of the east coast Sunday into Monday,” said Mark Willis, a meteorologist at the hurricane center. “It means dangerous surf conditions.”

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.

Computer tracking models projected Florence would hook sharply north during the weekend, turning away from the United States. It was too early to predict the potential impact on Bermuda, but the storm’s vast size made it likely the British banking center would at least feel the fringes of the storm.

“Bermuda is in the cone of uncertainty at this point,” Willis said.

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.

Just before 11 a.m. ET, 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.

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.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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