Irma leans left but South Florida still at ‘extreme’ risk

Hurricane Irma tightened its grip on South Florida Friday, becoming what everyone has long dreaded: a monster hurricane bearing down on a region with nearly 7 million people.

The latest forecast nudged the storm west away from Miami, but upped its intensity, with a landfall on the southwest coast after hammering the middle Keys and Marathon with potentially catastrophic winds. The eye is expected to near the Keys and South Florida Sunday morning, potentially as a Cat 5 storm. But there’s time for a wobble and tracks can still have an 80 to 90-mile margin of error two days out, National Hurricane Center forecaster Mike Brennan said.

With a storm so large, a major turn would also be needed to 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 slowed 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 345 miles southeast of Miami at 5 p.m. Warnings and watches encompass most of the state, with a hurricane warning expanded north to Sebastian Inlet and on the west coast to Anna Maria Island. A storm surge warning extends from Sebastian Inlet to Venice.

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National Hurricane Center

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, the hurricane weakened slightly, with sustained winds at 155 mph Friday evening. Fluctuations in intensity are expected and Irma is still projected to hit as a dangerous Cat 4 storm, something not seen in South Florida since Andrew, a far smaller hurricane that slammed south Dade 25 years ago last month as a Cat 5.

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.

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.

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“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, 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 11 deaths so far have been blamed on the storm, with dozens more injured. The number of deaths is likely to climb. Irma may have also claimed her first life in the U.S.: 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 U.S. related to Hurricane Irma.

Friday evening, Irma was moving over western Cuba and the central Bahamas, where storm surge could reach an astonishing 20 feet.

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.

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National Hurricane Center

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott also ordered seven cities evacuated just south of Lake Okeechobee over concerns that the lake’s 1930’s 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 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 may 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.”

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National Hurricane Center

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 Andrew, 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 likely to near the northern Leeward Islands tonight. 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.”

Staff writers Charles Rabin and Nicholas Nehamas and The Associated Press contributed to this report.