Hurricane Irma slammed into Turks and Caicos last night. While the extent of damage is not immediately known, the storm was a Category 5 with sustained winds of 175 mph as it passed the islands so damage is expected to be extensive. The islands did have one positive effect on Irma as it passed, disrupting its structure.
This caused the storm to weaken to a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 150 mph during the morning hours of Friday, but it strengthened back to a Category 5 late Friday night. Peak wind gusts remain at Category 5 strength, with reports of gusts up to 190 mph. No matter what the category, the one thing that is certain is that Irma remain an extremely dangerous hurricane as she continues her journey westward.
The Friday morning forecast from the National Weather Service was an ominous one for the southern Florida coastline. Current projections have the storm coming close to or making landfall as a strong Category 4 storm with 150 mph sustained winds.
Assuming this projection ends up being correct, this would be the strongest storm to hit the state since Hurricane Charley hit back in 2004 with 150 mph winds. In the past 25 years, only Andrew would have made a stronger landfall with winds of 165 mph.
Meteorologists are concerned that Irma could potentially strengthen as she approaches the Florida coastline. Historically, some of the strongest storms to hit the state like Hurricane Charley in 2005, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 all rapidly intensified in the relatively shallow and warm waters surrounding southern Florida.
With water temperatures currently in the mid to upper 80s across this region, there is ample fuel for more intensification. Wind shear, ambient winds around and the storm which hamper hurricanes ability to organize and strengthen, is low across the region. The key to whether or not it can intensify back to Category 5 status will lie in its track, which forecasters will be watching closely today. A strong Atlantic ridge, which has been steering the storm eastward, is forecast to break down over the next 24 hours, which will allow the storm to come northward.
If the ridge breaks down faster than expected, this will allow the storm to turn north faster, leaving a track up the east coast of Florida to Georgia and the Carolinas in play.
The model consensus today was that the ridge holds on a little longer however, allowing the storm to get farther west. If it tracks close enough or over Cuba, this will weaken the storm more. However, it will also make a landfall on Florida's southern or western coastlines more likely as the storm takes a later turn to the north.
Hurricane watches were extended today to include central portions of Florida, while hurricane warnings were issued for the entirety of southern Florida. Depending on exactly how the forecast for Irma does or does not change over the next several days, hurricane watches and warning are expected to be expanded farther north, possibly into the Florida Panhandle and the Georgia coastline.
Officials continue to urge those who can to get out, with mandatory evacuations being issued for many who live on the immediate shoreline. Officials warn that when the storm is underway, they will be limited and potentially unable assist those who choose to ignore the evacuation order due to the dangers that the storm poses.
Speaking of the dangers, they remain threefold. The key concern with Irma is the winds, particularly at landfall as the storm hits. Southern Florida looks to take the brunt of these winds, with the wind field weakening as Irma continues to push inland. Northern Florida through southern Georgia, particularly along the coastline, could still see hurricane force wind gusts as the storm heads northward Sunday night into Monday morning. By Monday evening, the storm should have rapidly weakened and the wind field will begin to deteriorate. Storm surge is the other major concern.
Storm surge levels could exceed 10 feet in parts of southern Florida. As the storm pushes northward, strong winds out of the east off the ocean with push water to push against the northern Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina coastline, as much as 5-to-10-feet in some locations.
Finally you have the heavy flooding rains that any tropical system bring, with widespread 6-to-12-inches of rain expected from Florida through Georgia all the way into southern portions of South Carolina. Though not as heavy, rain will continue northward into the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic from Monday night through Wednesday, but no significant winds are expected in these regions at this time. Stay safe!
For the latest on information on Irma such as forecasts, tracks and models, visit MyFoxHurricane.com.