Hurricane Irma’s size and strength has kept the entire state of Florida on notice since Tuesday. With winds that peaked at 185 mph (300 kph), Irma was once the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic. But given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, it could still prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.
This powerful hurricane has destroyed homes and flooded streets as it reeked through a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean some 1,000 miles from Florida.
Irma rolled past the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday and spun along the northern coast of Cuba on Friday morning. Thousands of tourists were evacuated from low-lying keys off the Cuban coast Thursday in anticipation of 20-foot storm surges. Buses loaded with tourists began streaming out of Santa Maria, Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and other keys dotted with all-inclusive resorts.
But these factors have not been mentioned in the continuous informative press briefing, specially to Florida’s cities that might unexpected be hit now.
Shifting track or wrong forecast?
With the window closing fast for anyone wanting to escape, Irma hurtled toward Florida with 125 mph winds Saturday on a shifting track that took it away from Miami and instead threatened the Tampa area with its first direct hit from a major hurricane in nearly a century.
“You need to leave – not tonight, not in an hour, right now,” Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in the evacuation zones ahead of the storm’s predicted arrival on Sunday morning.
For days, the forecast had made it look as if the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people could get hit head-on with the catastrophic and long-dreaded Big One.
The swing in the hurricane’s projected path overnight caught many on Florida’s Gulf coast off guard. By late morning, few businesses in St. Petersburg had even put plywood or hurricane shutters on their windows, and some locals groused about the change in the forecast.
“For five days, we were told it was going to be on the east coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we’re now told it’s coming up the west coast,” said Jeff Beerbohm, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in St. Petersburg. “As usual, the weatherman, I don’t know why they’re paid.”
Tampa has not been struck by a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Now the area has around 3 million people.
The new course threatened everything from Tampa Bay’s bustling twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg to Naples’ mansion- and yacht-lined canals, Sun City Center’s sprawling compound of modest retirement homes, and Sanibel Island’s shell-filled beaches.
With the new forecast, Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg, ordered 260,000 people to leave.
Meteorologists predicted its center would blow ashore Sunday in the perilously low-lying Florida Keys, then hit southwestern Florida and move north, plowing into the Tampa Bay area. Though the center is expected to miss Miami, the metro area will still get pounded with life-threatening hurricane winds, Feltgen said.
A three-day continuous shift
On Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center was projecting that Hurricane Irma would move from South Carolina’s coast toward the Upstate. Then on Friday, the forecast called for the center of the storm to pass west of the state. Saturday, the shift is completely towards the West coast of Florida.
It is not unusual for the projected paths of hurricanes to change. The National Hurricane Center frequently points out that the average track error ranges from 175 miles to 225 miles for its four- and five-day forecasts.
There are two factors that have contributed to the shift in the hurricane’s projected path, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Evan Duffey, a ridge of high pressure anchored over the Atlantic Ocean has remained stronger than expected. At the same time, a low pressure system is forming near the border of Alabama and Florida. The combined effects of those two weather features are expected to push Irma farther to the northwest as it emerges from Florida on Monday.
But these factors had not been explained to the population until now.
Evacuations in South Florida
Irma trained its sights on Florida and officials warned more than 5 million people that time was running out Friday and ordered them to evacuate ahead of the deadly hurricane as it followed a path that could take it from one end of the state to the other.
By late Friday, Irma had regained Category 5 strength with winds of 160 mph (260 kph). Forecasters expect the storm to be near the Florida Keys on Sunday morning and approach the state’s southwest coast by that afternoon.
Several small, poor communities around Lake Okeechobee in the south-central part of Florida were added to the evacuation list because the lake may overflow – but the governor said engineers expect the protective dike to hold up. Many people in the area said they wouldn’t leave because they either had no transportation or nowhere to go.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he planned for enough space to hold 100,000 people before the storm arrives, although most shelters were only beginning to fill on Friday.
One of the country’s largest evacuations
About 5.6 million people in Florida – more than one-quarter of the state’s population – were ordered to evacuate and another 540,000 were told to leave the Georgia coast. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters for people who did not leave. Hotels as far away as Atlanta filled up with evacuees.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said people fleeing could drive slowly in the shoulder lane on highways. He hasn’t reversed the southbound lanes because he said they were needed to deliver gas and supplies.
Gas shortages and gridlock plagued the evacuations. Parts of interstates 75 and 95 north were bumper-to-bumper.
Hurricane Irma’s aftermath
On Saturday morning, the state was already beginning to feel Irma’s muscle. Nearly 25,000 people had lost power, mostly in the Miami area, as the wind began gusting.
Major tourist attractions, including Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World, all prepared to close Saturday. The Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports shut down, and those in Orlando and Tampa planned to do the same later in the day.
Find previous coverage of #HurricaneIrma in the following pages