Irma’s fiercest winds ‘imminent’ in Lower Keys with Cat 4 eye at doorstep

Hurricane Irma’s strongest winds are about to begin raking the Florida Keys, as the fiercest 130-mph winds wrapping the eyewall neared the islands after the storm’s inexorable crawl across the Atlantic.

At 5:40 a.m. Sunday, the Key West weather service warned in a tweet that hurricane winds are “ imminent.”

Irma arrived as a massive Category 4, the strongest hurricane to strike the Keys since Donna in 1960. Forecasters at the National Weather Service office in Key West and National Hurricane Center expected the city and the Lower Keys to endure hurricane-force winds for 12 to 15 hours. The bigger worry was damage from five to 10 feet of storm surge, which was expected to peak during the early morning hours — coming first from the Atlantic, the the Gulf of Mexico and Irma passes.

Earlier Sunday, NHC hurricane specialist Mike Brennan described the scenario as exactly why they urged residents to flee the Keys.

“A very dangerous day is unfolding across the Florida Keys,” said Brennan. “It certainly could inundate the entire island with a five to 10-foot surge. That’s why everybody in the Keys was urged so strongly to evacuate.”

Brennan said to expect to see widespread, “catastrophic” damage from the wind in Key West. And, “The storm surge on top of that can literally wipe structures entirely away.”

The Category 4 storm has not yet made official landfall, however, because the National Hurricane Center defines that as the moment at which half of the hurricane’s eye wall comes ashore.

That should come shortly as the massive storm slowly moves across the island chain, possibly en route to another landfall somewhere along the West Coast of Florida.