Irma could make landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 5 storm

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Hurricane Irma could make landfall in the Florida Keys with winds at 160 miles per hour, making it a Category 5 storm, according to the latest forecast.

But Friday at 8 p.m., Irma remained a dangerous Category 4 hurricane with winds of 155 miles per hour and its eyewall moving over the north coast of Cuba. Roughly 5.6 million Floridians have been told to evacuate, according to Andrew Sussman, the state’s hurricane program manager.

Where the storm will make landfall in Florida remains uncertain, but the latest forecast suggests Irma is heading west — and away from the heavily populated coast of Miami. On its projected track, Irma could make landfall somewhere in the Middle Keys early Sunday morning with potentially catastrophic winds, then continue toward the Southwest coast. The risk for flood-prone Tampa Bay is profound and the area is under a storm surge warning.

But there is still plenty of time for a wobble or shift in course and tracks can have an 80- to 90-mile margin of error two days out, National Hurricane Center forecaster Mike Brennan said. So the Southeast coast remains very much in play for serious damage.

And with a storm so large, it’s unlikely that anywhere in South Florida will dodge Irma’s fury. The National Weather Service continues to rank risks from wind and storm surge over the coming days as extreme.

“We still could have 100-plus mile per hour gusts over the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and even Palm Beach metro areas,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Kevin Scharfenberg. “We’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.”

Irma is heading west, although it continues to slow considerably Friday evening, and should continue in that direction through Saturday, forecasters said, with hurricane conditions in the Keys and mainland starting Saturday night. Tropical storm-force winds should start in the morning. Forecasters are increasingly concerned about flooding, with high storm surge and heavy rain expected, and likely to come at high tide in vulnerable places like Miami Beach.

Irma was located just 315 miles southeast of Miami at 8 p.m. Warnings and watches encompass most of the state, with a hurricane warning in effect in the north to Sebastian Inlet and on the west coast to Anna Maria Island. A storm surge warning extends from Sebastian Inlet to Venice.

By late Saturday, the storm should begin making a critical turn to the north. But the turn will likely be too late to spare Florida from punishing hurricane winds that extend 70 miles from Irma’s center.

Overnight Thursday, the hurricane weakened slightly, with sustained winds near 155 mph Friday evening, with higher gusts.

Because Irma is moving south to north, the storm will likely make a “protracted slog” across South Florida, with hurricane-force winds lasting up to 12 hours, Brennan said. The hurricane should begin weakening quickly once it crosses land, but its sheer size could still bring widespread damaging winds.

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The storm’s eye also grew larger, to more than 45 miles across as it underwent an eyewall replacement. Such restructuring in fierce storms is common and can weaken the hurricane initially before recharging. In Irma’s case, the storm has rekindled with each replacement, and gotten wider. An eye expanding so much — the eye had been about half as big Thursday — usually signals a new eye forming that will tighten and shrink as the hurricane spins forward.

Because a hurricane’s most catastrophic winds blow near the eye, where the center tracks matters. Miami-Dade and the east coast remain on the storm’s dirty, stronger side.

“The best case would be to have it pass far enough way that the eyewall completely misses,” said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. “It’s such a narrow kind of range. It doesn’t take much. A difference of 25 miles is kind of insignificant in terms of track forecast, but it is significant.”

Overnight Thursday, Irma continued rolling through the Caribbean after pounding islands in the French territories. The Turks and Caicos, where communications were knocked out, reported roofs ripped off, blackouts and flooding. Dangerous storm surge and heavy rain will likely continue pounding the islands through Saturday, with heavy rain also forecast for Hispaniola.

The U.S. Virgin Islands lost its 911 call lines. The small island of Barbuda reported damage to 95 percent of the island, including its hospital and airport. At least 22 deaths so far have been blamed on the storm, with dozens more injured. The number of deaths is likely to climb. Irma might have also claimed her first life in the United Stats: a 57-year-old Davie man hired to help put up hurricane shutters who police say fell 15 feet off a ladder, hit his head on a pool deck and died. Davie police, who did not release his name, say as far as they know, it’s the first death in the United States related to Hurricane Irma.

On Friday evening, the government of the Bahamas discontinued a hurricane warning for the southeastern portion of the country, except for Ragged Island.

All of South Florida remains under a hurricane warning, with evacuation orders for parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties that include 680,000 people in Miami-Dade. All residents and visitors have been ordered out of the Keys. A watch has also been extended north along the east coast to Sebastian Inlet and on the west coast to Anna Maria Island, essentially putting the entire lower half of the state on alert.

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott also ordered seven cities evacuated just south of Lake Okeechobee over concerns that the lake’s 1930s-era dike might fail. Evacuations also spread across 15 other counties, including parts of Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Collier and Pinellas counties.

The South Florida coast and Keys are also under a storm surge warning, with surge levels projected to reach between five and 10 feet on the east coast and eight to 12 feet from Cape Sable to Captiva. Forecasters warned that the Naples area could see a significant surge as Irma pushes water across the Gulf’s continental shelf.

“It could be as high as your head, or twice that high,” Brennan said. “That’s life-threatening.”

Biscayne Bay could also easily pile up water quickly because it is so shallow, he said.

“The bay responds really fast,” he said.

And the Keys might get a double whammy, he said, as water rises first on one side as the storm circles clockwise, and then the other as it leaves.

“You can get almost two separate rounds.”

South Florida could also get heavy rain, with 10 to 15 inches across the Upper Keys — and up to 20 inches possible in some places — and up to 12 inches on the east coast. In some locations, 16 inches are possible.

While Irma compares in intensity to Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago, Brennan said impacts from the storms will likely be different. Andrew approached the coast perpendicularly, plowing westward over South Dade after hitting Elliott Key, and chewing up Country Walk and other neighborhoods in its path. Irma is coming from the south, moving northward and pushing water expected to cause more surge across a wider swath, before plowing up the peninsula into Central Florida.

“Every storm is always different,” Brennan said. “The hazards are always different.”

Forecasters are also tracking a second hurricane, Jose, that became a Cat 4 storm with 150 mph winds Friday morning nearing the northern Leeward Islands on Saturday. It’s not expected to hit the U.S. coast, but could be disastrous for islands still reeling from Irma.

It’s the first time on record two hurricanes with winds of 150 mph or higher have been recorded in the Atlantic, said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach, although not the first time the basin has produced two Cat 4 storms at once.

“There’s been years where we’ve had three,” said hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. “Unusual, but not a record.”

Miami Herald staff writers Charles Rabin, Mary Ellen Klas and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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