Hurricane Irma turned its sights on Florida after traveling farther west and turning north later than most forecasts had suggested less than a day earlier. As a result, Miami and the east coast will be spared the brunt of the storm, while Key West and the west coast are preparing for a direct hit.
The north coast of Cuba was scraped by Irma, with the center hugging the coastline and leaving a long path of destruction by the powerful winds in the eye wall. For Florida, this was a positive development, as the interaction with land weakened Irma from category five to category three. But the northward turn, which finally occurred Saturday night, took the center over the very warm water of the Straits of Florida, and Irma has now strengthened to a category four storm as it prepares to make landfall in Florida. The exact location of landfall is still hard to predict, as Irma could come ashore in south Florida or skirt the coast and make landfall in the Panhandle.
Given the current trajectory of the storm, west coast harbors and bays are at greatest risk of storm surge. On the east coast, storm surge warnings have been discontinued from North Miami Beach to Jupiter. If the eye of Irma stays over water, the greatest risk to the largest number of people is in the densely-populated Tampa Bay area.
As of the 5 a.m. advisory by the National Hurricane Center, Irma is centered about 40 miles south-southwest of Key West and 140 miles south of Tampa. Key West is now experiencing hurricane force winds.
The storm has turned to the north, and is now over warm water. However, vertical wind shear is increasing, and though some slight strengthening could occur in the next few hours, the storm will weaken after that.
Regardless of fluctuations in strength, Irma is still a powerful and dangerous storm, which is bound to cause major damage over a wide area. Tropical storm force winds now extend out 220 miles from the center, so all of Florida will experience them at some time. Hurricane force winds extend out 70 miles, and the most destructive winds are confined to the eye wall, normally within 30 miles of the center.
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