Hurricane Irma, now one of the most dangerous Atlantic storms in history, with 185 mph winds and gusts up to 218 mph, was poised Tuesday night to begin a potentially devastating march through the Lesser Antilles, while Florida and the rest of the Caribbean wait with trepidation.
The “extremely dangerous hurricane” is moving slightly northwest at 14 mph. At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Irma was 130 miles east of Antigua and 135 miles east-southeast of Barbuda in the Lesser Antilles, the National Hurricane Center said. The central pressure has dropped to 926 millibars or 27.35 inches.
Emergencies have been declared all along the path of the storm, as residents and officials rush to prepare for the life-threatening hurricane. Irma is forecast to move through the Lesser Antilles, then aim for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday. By Friday, its earliest tropical storm force winds are expected in the Florida Keys, where evacuations are beginning.
Anxious Floridians crowded stores Tuesday, buying hurricane supplies for their homes and families. Many made plans to leave their homes, with inland hotels quickly filling up with reservations for those fleeing Irma’s potential fury in coastal areas.
After arriving in the Keys, Irma’s impacts are forecast to move north along the Florida peninsula on Saturday and Sunday. But just how high those winds may be and where they will wreak the most havoc was still a big question mark Tuesday.
The storm is forecast to turn to the north around a high-pressure ridge over the Atlantic Ocean, but computer models used to forecast the storm are split on when and where the turn could take place
In the Florida Keys, the Key West Naval Air Station began evacuations Tuesday night. All Keys visitors were asked to leave on Wednesday morning, and Keys residents were ordered to evacuate on Wednesday evening. As the evacuations begin, Gov. Rick Scott has suspended tolls statewide until the massive storm has run its course.
Forecasters at the Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service are waiting to see if Irma takes an expected turn to the north as it travels around a high-pressure ridge over the Atlantic Ocean and see how the ridge and hurricane interact with a trough moving across the U.S. They emphasize that the storm is very large, with hurricane force winds up to 60 miles from the eye and tropical storm force winds extending up to 160 miles from the center.
Irma becomes only the fifth Atlantic basin hurricane with a peak wind speed of 185 mph or higher.
The Hurricane Center said an eyewall replacement cycle may be beginning in the center of Irma, which could result in fluctuations in intensity over the next couple of days. But, warm ocean temperatures and low wind shear are expected to keep Irma at Category 4 or 5 strength over the next several days.
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Center stated Irma had begun to move a little north of due west, as it is being steered around a high pressure ridge. That ridge is forecast to keep Irma on a west-northwestward trek until the weekend. By then, a shortwave trough is forecast to weaken the ridge and cause Irma to turn poleward. At that point, the computer models that forecasters use to predict the track of hurricanes are split on where the turn to the north could happen and when.
“Confidence is increasing that major Hurricane Irma will have at least some impact on Florida,” the National Weather Service office in Melbourne wrote Tuesday morning. “However, solutions showing a northward turn ranging from the eastern Gulf of Mexico to just offshore the east coast of Florida, and in between, remain equally plausible.”
The National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center forecast calls for a broad swath of south and eastern Florida receiving up to 10 inches of rain, with up to 15 inches possible for the southern tip of the state and the Keys. Depending on the storm’s track, rainfall could be higher in isolated locations.
Only 31 other storms have become Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic. The winds in such a storm can cause catastrophic damage, with tornado-like winds leveling structures and utility lines.
Scott declared a state of emergency Monday and now has asked for a presidential disaster declaration as officials statewide prepare for Irma’s potential impacts.
A hurricane warning was in effect Tuesday night for Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Martin, Saint Barthelemy, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
A hurricane watch was in effect for Guadeloupe, Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to the northern border with Haiti.
A tropical storm warning was in effect for Guadeloupe and Dominica, and the Dominican Republic from south of Cabo Engao to Isla Saona.
In Puerto Rico, Gov. Ricardo Rossello declared a state of the emergency, closing schools and making other preparations.
Elsewhere in the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Jose formed Tuesday and was located 1,400 miles east of the Lesser Antilles by the evening. The storm has 45 mph winds and is moving west-northwest at 12 mph.
Jose could become a hurricane by Friday, but is forecast to move into the North Atlantic and not follow in Irma’s wake.
Dinah Voyles Pulver is a staff writer for the Daytona Beach News-Journal.