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One of the most powerful hurricanes on record continued steaming toward South Florida early Wednesday, with its course after three days still shifting.
In their early morning discussion, National Hurricane Center forecasters said the latest model runs have moved Irma’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 they say models are still struggling to factor in a trough moving over the U.S. expected to help steer Irma.
At 8 a.m., Irma remained a ferocious Cat 5 storm, with its eye passing over St. Martin and northern eyewall beginning to pound Anguilla.
Sustained winds still reached 185 mph, with higher gusts, as it headed west, northwest at 16 mph.
Overnight, Irma plowed across the northern end of the Leeward Islands, hammering Barbuda and Antigua as it headed for Puerto Rico. 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. Gov. Rick Scott will provide a briefing from the Monroe County Emergency Operations Center in Marthon this morning, followed by a second in Doral at 12:15.
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 covered the north coast of the Dominican Republic along with the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos. Watches were in effect for parts of Haiti, still recovering from Matthew’s battering last year, and the central Bahamas.
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 as early as Friday, with hurricane conditions moving across the state over the weekend. With hurricane winds extending 50 miles from Irma’s center, and tropical winds reaching 175 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.