Tampa Bay area under tropical storm watch

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The west coast of Florida -- including the Tampa Bay area -- is now under a tropical storm watch as Hurricane Matthew approaches the other side of the state.

The National Hurricane Center expects the dangerous hurricane to track almost directly up the east coast of Florida late Thursday and Friday.  

The 5 p.m. forecast track for the storm has shifted west slightly, now strongly hinting at a landfall in South Florida.  If that track verifies, the state's west coast could see tropical storm force winds -- and worse conditions further inland.

"Because the storm is so big and it will likely come along the east coast, there could be wind gusts in Tampa Bay as the storm goes by -- even from the southwest behind it -- that could be stronger than 39 miles per hour," explained FOX 13 chief meteorologist Paul Dellegatto.

MAPS: Matthew track & models on MyFoxHurricane.com
SCHOOLS: Bay Area school closings
SANDBAGS: County-by-county sandbag locations

Schools in Polk and Highlands counties are already closed Thursday and Friday in anticipation of bad weather, while Sumter will close early Thursday and stay closed Friday.

As of Wednesday evening, Matthew was a Category 3 storm just north of Cuba with winds of 120 mph.  With warm water between Cuba and Florida, the storm is expected to intensify at it approaches.  The east coast of Florida could see winds between 120 and 140 mph, depending on just how close Matthew's eye gets to the Sunshine State.

"The worst case scenario on this storm is the eyewall kind of running up along the coast," Dellegatto continued, "and to be completely blunt about this, if that was to verify, we would classify that as a catastrophe for our east coast."