SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Hurricane Irma continues to rewrite the record books when it comes to its prolonged intensity. Irma first hit 180 mph winds Tuesday at 11 a.m. It maintained at least 180 mph winds for 48 straight hours before slightly weakening to 175 mph winds at 11 a.m. Thursday. This was more than double the previous record holder of hurricane Allen back in 1980, which had winds over 180 mph winds for only 18 hours.
Damage in the northern Leeward Islands where Irma made landfall was catastrophic. Early reports suggest up to 90% on the structures on the small island of Barbuda, which was the first island to feel Irma's wrath, have been damaged. Unfortunately, at least 10 people have been confirmed dead as of Thursday morning, with that number expected to rise as the Category 5 storm continues to barrel westward.
Today is a key day for Hurricane Irma as the storm is passing near Hispaniola. The closer the storm is able to track to the island, the more likely it is that the storm weakens due to the high elevation of the island's interior. Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic is the island's tallest peak, rising to over 10,000 ft. This is important because Category 5 hurricanes, while powerful, are also fickle beasts.
Any interference from higher elevations can disrupt their sensitive structure, leading to weakening. The storm will then head for the islands of Turks and Caicos where it may come close to a landfall on some of the smaller southern islands. Hurricane warnings are already in effect with the storm's full effects anticipated this evening.
Hurricane warnings were expanded today to include the remainder of the islands of the Bahamas and the entire southern Florida coastline.
Florida officials continue to urge citizens to prepare for the worst and to heed any evacuation orders issued. With the storm still expected to turn to the north, the governors of Georgia and South Carolina declared a state of emergency for their respective states.
The track Irma decides to take as it pushes westward will be what conditions are expected as the storm approaches Florida. Hispaniola has already caused the storm to weaken slightly to 175 mph winds this morning. If the storm travels slightly farther north than the current forecast track over more of the islands of Turks and Caicos and then through the Bahamas, it could weaken the storm. If the storm takes a more southern route into Cuba, it would weaken the storm.
If the storm threads the needle so to speak, staying between the bigger islands with the eye out over very warm, very open water, then the potential for Irma to stay a strong category 4 or even a category 5 storm approaching the Florida coastline this weekend does increase. As of Thursday morning, there is still no definitive answer on whether or not Irma will make landfall in Florida or not, however those models that do miss still get close enough to South Florida to do major damage. Case and point, this storm has all the potential to be an extremely destructive hurricane for the region.
The threats for all hurricanes are about the same, but with different levels of severity. Worst case scenario, winds could possibly exceed 160 mph with even higher gusts as the storm approaches the Florida coastline on Saturday evening. Storm surges along the coastline, particularly for those on the southern and eastern half of the state, are likely to be destructive to coastal low-lying areas including potentially the city of Miami. Irma will also bring heavy rains that are likely to cause flash flooding throughout the region. The safest thing you can do with a storm as severe as this one is evacuate.
Beyond Florida, questions remain on where Irma could potentially go. The National Hurricane Center currently favors another landfall in the Carolinas early next workweek. By this time, upper level winds will start becoming unfavorable to allowing Irma to maintain extreme strength as a category 4 or 5, but a landfall even of a weaker storm could still be devastating to the Carolina coastline, with flooding concerns for the interior southeast as heavy rain pushes inland. As new data comes in, we will continue to update you on this ever changing situation, and help keep you ahead of this powerful and dangerous storm.
For the latest on information on Irma such as forecasts, tracks and models, visit MyFoxHurricane.com.