- Hurricane Irma slammed into several Caribbean islands as a “potentially catastrophic” Category 5 storm on Wednesday, killing at least 10 people.
- The National Hurricane Center’s projected path shows Irma arriving in South Florida over the weekend and traveling up the state’s east coast.
- Florida Gov. Rick Scott has activated the state’s National Guard, and parts of South Florida are under mandatory evacuation orders.
- President Donald Trump has declared a state of emergency for Florida in anticipation of the storm.
After steamrolling several Caribbean islands, Hurricane Irma appears to be heading directly toward the Turks and Caicos islands, according to the latest forecast. After that, its path leads straight to South Florida, parts of which are under hurricane and storm-surge watches as of 11 a.m. ET Thursday.
Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, has killed at least 10 people, according to reports.
The initial damage from the storm was observed on Wednesday in Barbuda, an island east of Puerto Rico. Communication with the island was cut off because of the destruction, and the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, said Barbuda was “totally demolished,” with 90% of its buildings destroyed.
According to The Associated Press, officials in Antigua and Barbuda had told residents to seek shelter from Irma’s “onslaught” in a statement that closed with: “May God protect us all.” The AP also reported that fierce winds there lifted the roof off a police station, prompting officers to take shelter in a nearby fire station.
Irma wreaked havoc in St. Martin and St. Barts as well, devastating popular tourist destinations, and slammed the Virgin Islands before passing just north of Puerto Rico. Winds were still strong enough to cut off power to half the island’s residents, however, and reports suggest some may not regain electricity for months.
The National Hurricane Center’s latest forecast for Irma projects the centerline of the Category 5 storm going right over Miami before heading up the east coast of Florida and then taking aim at South Carolina. However, Irma is big and powerful enough to affect most of Florida even if it stays offshore.
“Even if Irma does take this trajectory passing directly over the eastern coast, we certainly would expect it to impact the whole state,” James Belanger, a senior meteorological scientist with The Weather Company, the group behind the Weather Channel and Weather Underground, told Business Insider on Wednesday.
Though it’s too soon to say for certain where the storm will go, the forecast strongly suggests Irma will hit South Florida as a major hurricane on Sunday, with tropical-storm-force winds arriving Saturday. As a result, US and state officials are urging people to ready their emergency plans and supplies.
“We do not know the exact path of this storm, but weather can change in an instant, and while we hope for the best, we must prepare for the worst,” Gov. Rick Scott of Florida said in a Tuesday statement.
Irma formed off the coast of western Africa last week and almost immediately started crossing the Caribbean Sea. Phil Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University specializing in Atlantic hurricanes, told Business Insider last week that a combination of conditions — including a warm tropical Atlantic, a weak wind shear, and a change from drier to wetter weather — made it easy for Irma to pick up strength.
Irma officially became a named storm on August 30 and was classified as a hurricane the next day. Since then, it has gained and kept strength from the moisture of unusually warm waters in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its sustained wind speeds of 185 mph for 33 hours set a record for the longest a cyclone has maintained that intensity.
The Category 5 label means Irma has sustained winds of at least 157 mph near its core. The latest “hurricane hunter” airplane measurements suggest the storm’s sustained winds now top 175 mph, though gusts have been recorded above 215 mph. That makes Irma the strongest hurricane ever measured in the Atlantic Ocean (outside of the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, where Hurricane Allen still holds the record).
Possible landfall in the US
Forecasters don’t know for certain whether Irma will make landfall in the US, let alone as such a powerful storm. But the latest computer models make it look likely — two of the most predictive models show that South Florida and Miami are in Irma’s path.
Irma could also “impact Georgia and South Carolina, but it could even make its way into the western Gulf,” Belanger said Wednesday, though that’s not the most likely track. “It’s important that people monitor the official forecast.”
To prepare for Irma, Scott ordered all 7,000 members of Florida’s National Guard to report for duty on Friday morning. Miami-Dade County is also evacuating some of the lowest-lying areas prone to storm surge, including Miami Beach. The Florida Keys, meanwhile, are closing schools and issued a mandatory evacuation order for all visitors and residents starting Wednesday morning. Other parts of the South Florida have done the same, with more 100,000 residents affected so far.
Trump declared states of emergency in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands on Tuesday evening to free up federal resources for a major response to the storm.
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