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One of the most powerful hurricanes on record continued steaming toward South Florida on Wednesday, with its course after three days still shifting.
In their 11 a.m. discussion, National Hurricane Center forecasters said the latest model runs show Irma continuing to the north, northwest over the next two to three days toward Florida with a good amount of certainty. After that, they move the storm’s path slightly to the east, taking the fierce Cat 5 storm over Florida’s east coast or the northern Bahamas in the coming days.
But forecasters warned that track models are still struggling to factor in a trough moving over the U.S. expected to turn Irma. Some continue to show Irma plowing across the middle of the state or swinging to the west, with the margin of error at four and five days at 175 to 225 miles.
At 11 a.m., Irma was closing in on the Virgin Islands and expected to reach Puerto Rico this afternoon, forecasters said.
Sustained winds still reached 185 mph, with higher gusts, as it headed west, northwest at 16 mph. A hurricane hunter plane that passed over the storm earlire Wednesday recorded winds reaching nearly 175 mph.
Overnight, Irma plowed across the northern end of the Leeward Islands, with St. Martin and Anguilla taking a direct hit.The hurricane is expected to pass near or just north of the Dominican Republic Thursday and near the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas late Thursday.
Hurricane center forecasters say Irma is the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, outside the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean. It has also set a new all-time high for the amount of wind energy ever recorded over a 24-hour period, said Colorado State meteorologist Phil Klotzbach.
A NOAA weather station on Barbuda reported a 155 mph gust and sustained winds of 118 mph before failing Wednesday morning, forecasters said.
Storm surge forecast through the islands went from very high — up to 20 feet in the Turks and Caicos — to a low of three feet on Haiti’s north coast. Heavy rain, with up to 20 inches possible, could hit parts of the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and Cuba.
In South Florida, Irma’s pending threat triggered mandatory evacuations in the Florida Keys, beginning today, with evacuation orders likely for the beaches and coastal areas in Miami-Dade County today. Tolls across the state’s highways were lifted yesterday as long lines began snaking out of gas stations and supplies including plywood and water, flew off the shelves.
Gov. Rick Scott will provide his second briefing of the day at Miami-Dade’s emergency operations center in Doral at 12:15. Earlier in the day, Scott ordered another 900 National Guard members to duty to assist in preparations. By Friday, all 7,000 of the state’s guardsmen will report to duty. Scott said Tuesday that no gas shortages have been reported, but the state is also keeping watch on supplies and also tracking the availability of bottled water.
While Hurricane Hermine hit the state’s Big Bend region last year, and Matthew bounced up the coast, carving a wide swath of erosion north of Daytona Beach, South Florida has not experienced widespread damage since Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
As Irma churns to the northwest, its expected to rip across vulnerable island with catastrophic winds and storm surge. Hurricane warnings remain in effect for many of the Leeward Islands, along with the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Hurricane watches have been issued for parts of Cuba, from the Matanzas province to Guantanamo and the Central Bahamas. Tropical storm warnings also covered parts of the north coast of Hispaniola.
Forecasters say Irma is likely to bring dangerous winds, storm surge, and heavy rain to these areas through Friday. The rest of the Bahamas and Cuba could take a direct hit from Irma later this week, they said.
While Wednesday morning’s track shift to the right could be bad news for South Florida’s densely developed east coast, forecasters generally look for patterns in model runs, and avoid basing projections on a single run.
“I don’t like to get all excited about one run to the next run. I like to look at a lot of models over a lot of runs and look for trends and consistency,” said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. “If you have a model that hops around from one run to the next to the next, it’s kind of like an eye-rolling moment. It shows it doesn’t really have a grasp on what’s happening.”
Florida could begin feeling tropical storm force winds late Friday or early Saturday, with hurricane conditions moving across the state over the weekend. With hurricane winds extending 50 miles from Irma’s center, and tropical winds reaching 185 miles, Irma is bound to deliver widespread impacts if it tracks across the state.
Forecasters are calling for Irma to remain a dangerous Cat 4 or 5 storm in the coming days, although it should begin to weaken slightly if it moves across the Florida peninsula.
Forecasters are also tracking Tropical Storm Jose, which neared hurricane strength Wednesday morning. In their 11 a.m. advisory, forecaster said the storm was located more than 1,100 miles east of the Lesser Antilles with sustained winds of 70 mph. The storm is moving west at 17 mph, with the early forecast track swinging it east of the islands.