Hurricane Irma slams Turks and Caicos on path to Florida

Hurricane Irma battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday as the fearsome Category 5 storm continued a rampage through the Caribbean that has killed at least 11 people, with Florida in its sights.

Waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters) were expected in the Turks and Caicos. Communications went down as the storm slammed into the islands, and the extent of the devastation was unclear.

At 5 a.m. Friday, Hurricane Irma was moving through the southeastern Bahamas as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, and it is expected to remain that powerful during the next couple of days.

The storm is about 55 miles northwest of Great Inagua Island and 495 miles southeast of Miami, moving at 16 mph. It is currently moving toward the west-northwest and this motion is expected to continue for the next day or so with a decrease in forward speed. A turn toward the northwest is expected by late Saturday.

The hurricane is expected to be near the Florida Keys and the southern Florida Peninsula Sunday morning.

Late Thursday night, Miami-Dade and Broward were placed under a hurricane warning and storm surge warning .

The warnings extend from the Jupiter Inlet southward, around the Florida peninsula to Bonita Beach, the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee, and the Florida Bay, according to the National Weather Service’s 11 p.m. advisory. These areas were originally placed under a hurricane watch 12 hours earlier.

The official difference is a hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected within the warning area imminently. Once a warning is issued for the area, “preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” according to the National Hurricane Center.

As Hurricane Irma inches closer to Florida, new parts of the state were placed under a hurricane watch. This includes east coast regions north of Jupiter Inlet to Sebastian Inlet and areas on the west coast north of Bonita Beach to Anna Maria Island.

Irma’s maximum sustained wind speeds had decreased from 175 mph at the 8 p.m. advisory to 165 mph at 11 p.m. The monster storm is still traveling west-northwest at 16 mph, meteorologists say, noting that fluctuations in intensity are expected, but it will almost certainly remain a dangerous Cat 4 or 5 storm in the coming days.

In the past 24 hours, computer runs suggest Miami could take a direct blow and be at the center of the Category 5 hurricane, though there’s still plenty of time for that to change. In a worst-case scenario, Florida surge waters could reach life-threatening levels of between five and 10 feet above ground, forecasters said.

The storm surge may also be widespread, fueled by Irma’s sheer size, senior hurricane specialist Mike Brennan said. Along the Gulf’s flat coastal shelf, waters could rise far inland.

In Key West, ocean waters could rise as high as eight feet, forecasters warned, accompanied by battering waves. Winds that are expected to pick up Saturday afternoon may cause “structural damage to sturdy buildings, some with complete roof and wall failures,” leaving roads and bridges impassable.

Thursday night, hundreds camped out at Miami International airport, many trying to catch whatever flights were still heading out of South Florida. Around 11 p.m., phones simultaneously began shrieking as an emergency alert with the hurricane warning was issued.

Among those at the airport: Red Gonzalez, who said he took the last train ride from Fort Lauderdale to Miami International Airport to catch a flight to Cuba at 6 a.m. “I have been dealing with hurricanes my whole life,” he said. “I am not worried.”

By 8 p.m. Thursday, Irma was “pummeling” the Turks and Caicos, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was expected to reach the Bahamas later in the coming hours, forecasters said. Parts of Cuba’s north coast are also expected to get slammed with hurricane force winds before Irma arrives in Florida.

A high pressure ridge is steering the storm, but the ridge should weaken when it collides with a low pressure trough moving across the U.S., letting Irma turn north. Exactly when and where that happens remains less certain, leaving the target of the hurricane’s ferocious core unclear.

South Florida continued making frantic preparations Thursday, with highways growing clogged, long lines at gas stations — and many already drained — and supplies flying off shelves. To speed up refilling gas stations, Gov. Rick Scott ordered state police to escort fuel trucks through traffic.

“We know fuel is important and absolutely devoting every state resource to addressing this,” Scott said. “While we are making progress, you will see lines and outages.”

Evacuation orders were expanded Thursday from the beaches and coastal areas inland, to cover large parts of Miami-Dade County — where about 650,000 people live — including Homestead, Florida City, parts of Coral Gables, Miami Shores and North Miami Beach. The county now has eight shelters open. Broward County has also ordered residents to leave the coast and low-lying areas. All residents and visitors have been ordered out of the Keys.

Over the next two days, Irma is expected to keep moving to the west-northwest around the southwestern edge of the ridge and and begin to slow. The trough — moving from the Midwest and tracked by meteorologists around the country with weather balloons launched every six hours — should begin to erode the ridge, letting Irma slide north.

But the timing and speed of the turn remain less certain, forecasters said, leaving Irma’s precise path unclear and a margin of error of about 120 miles at three days and 175 miles at four days. Wobbles are expected, which is why forecasters say more attention should be paid to the hurricane’s cone, and not a single track.

Forecasters are also tracking a second hurricane, Jose, which is expected to become a major hurricane Friday. Early Thursday morning, the hurricane was located about 800 miles east of the Lesser Antilles with sustained winds of 90 mph. The compact storm, with hurricane winds extending just 15 miles from its center, is expected to near the islands Saturday.