With fresh memories of last year's barrage of deadly hurricanes, Floridians kept a watchful eye on Tropical Storm Dennis on Wednesday as it moved through the Caribbean on a path that could bring it to U.S. shores by the weekend.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami could not say with certainty where or if Dennis would hit because the storm was still more than 800 miles southeast of Miami. But they cautioned people to be ready for Dennis, which could be a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 111 to 130 mph by the time it enters the Gulf of Mexico.
"Pretty much everyone from the [Florida] Keys all the way to Texas" should be monitoring the progress of Dennis, the fourth named storm in the young season, said Chris Hennon, a meteorologist at the center.
Forecaster Chris Lauer said: This is "the earliest we've had this many named storms in recorded history in the Atlantic."
At 8 p.m. Eastern time, Dennis's center was about 280 miles east-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and about 295 miles south-southeast of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, forecasters said. A hurricane-hunter aircraft found that the storm had top sustained winds of near 80 mph; tropical storms become hurricanes when their sustained winds hit 74 mph.
Dennis was moving west-northwest at about 13 mph.
NASA said it is monitoring Dennis in case the shuttle needs to be moved from the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center back to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral.
The Gulf Coast spent Wednesday cleaning up from another tropical storm, Cindy, which left more than 250,000 people without electricity at one point.
The storm pelted Louisiana with nearly eight inches of rain and 70-mph winds, and caused flooding along the coast. There were 34 road closures in one Mississippi county. The storm ripped up piers in Alabama, where some areas received more than 10 inches of rain.
More than 12 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's daily oil production was shut off Wednesday because of rig evacuations forced by Cindy, a government agency reported. Oil prices climbed nearly 3 percent to finish at a record above $61 a barrel, but the refinery snags caused by Cindy were minor.
The hurricane season's peak is still more than a month away, but Florida has already been affected by two tropical storms this year. Florida was pummeled by four hurricanes in 2004.