Irma spun into a monster storm Tuesday morning with sustained winds topping 180 mph, becoming the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded outside the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, National Hurricane Center forecasters said in their 11 a.m. advisory.
As the hurricane churns closer to the U.S. coast, its path becomes more certain, with South Florida, particularly the Keys, increasingly likely to take a hit. Tropical storm force winds could arrive as early as Friday. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for all 67 counties and will spend much of Tuesday morning in hurricane briefings.
Because Irma is so large, forecasters urged caution in paying too much attention to its exact track. The storm is continuing to roll west at 14 mph, with winds expected to begin battering the Leeward Islands today. A powerful high pressure ridge is steering the storm and will likely stay in place over the next few days, forecasters said. In five days, a trough moving across the U.S. should begin weakening the western edge of the ridge, allowing the storm to slide north. Where Irma makes the turn will determine impacts to Florida.
Forecasters warned catastrophic wind, storm surge reaching between seven and 11 feet in places and pounding waves will likely hammer the region. Fierce hurricane winds extend 60 miles from Irma’s center, with tropical storm force winds reaching another 160 miles.
Dangerous conditions, with hurricane force winds, are expected to hit the Leeward Islands tonight and Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday. Hurricane watches have also been issued for portions of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the southeastern Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, with fierce winds, storm surge and heavy rain Thursday and Friday. In Puerto Rico, the governor has declared a state of emergency and is preparing to open 456 shelters that can house more than 62,000.
Irma could strike a direct blow on the remainder of the Bahamas and Cuba later in the week, they said. The likelihood of Irma hitting the Keys or parts of South Florida is also increasing, however forecasters warned it’s too soon to determine what impacts the region might feel.
At 11 a.m., Irma was located 225 miles east of Antigua, heading west at 14 mph. While wind speeds could fluctuate over the next day or two, forecasters say it will likely remain a very dangerous Cat 4 or 5 storm as it heads westward.
In South Florida, the Keys would be the first region to undergo evacuation orders. Monroe County officials plan to activate their emergency operations center at noon today to begin announcing plans. Evacuations are generally ordered for any storm at Cat 1 strength or higher.
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Gov. Rick Scott said he spoke to President Donald Trump Monday and asked him to declare a state of emergency in advance of Irma’s arrival.
“This morning, I am requesting the president declare a pre-landfall emergency for the State of Florida to help preposition necessary resources and support emergency protective measures across the state,” he said. “Our state emergency management officials are working with our federal and local partners to prepare for any potential impacts from this dangerous storm, and it is crucial that we have access to every available resource to protect our families and communities.”
Across the mainland, the South Florida Water Management District has already begun inspecting pumps and gates and lowering canals to make room for heavy rain, flushing as much water as possible. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also keeping a close eye on the aging dike around Lake Okeechobee, where water levels Tuesday were at 13.65 feet, still well below the 15.5 feet level where discharges begin and the more than 18 feet limit set to protect the dike.
While models have shifted Irma’s path up and down over the weekend, Tuesday morning’s runs largely agree on the storm’s path over the next three days, with less certainty after that.