After blasting the northern Caribbean, deadly Hurricane Irma will turn toward the United States, unleashing destructive winds, flooding rain and dangerous seas across Florida starting on Saturday.
“Unfortunately, there is no way the United States is going to avoid another catastrophic weather event,” Dr. Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather said.
“There will be massive damage in Florida. [It will be] the worst single hurricane to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992,” Myers said.
The current track of Irma will bring the most severe impacts to the eastern side of the state, including Miami, West Palm Beach, Melbourne, Daytona Beach and Jacksonville. However, with the forecast track now taking Irma right up the Florida Peninsula, hurricane-force winds will reach western parts of the state as well, including Tampa, Fort Myers and Sarasota.
If the track shifts even a little bit to the west, the most severe impacts of the storm would impact western Florida and the Lower Keys.
“Irma remains a very powerful and destructive hurricane,” AccuWeather Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said.
“Impacts within the projected path of Irma include life-threatening wind, storm surge and flooding rainfall hazards,” Kottlowski added.
Conditions will rapidly deteriorate across South Florida and could turn life-threatening Saturday into Sunday. This is when rain and hurricane-force winds will quickly intensify.
Torrential rainfall, high winds and inundating seas will then increase from south to north across the Florida Peninsula on Sunday into Monday.
A large fetch onshore, or continually blowing winds from the ocean, will cause water to pile up along the Florida coast, Myers explained. With the full moon a few days ago, significant flooding is likely, especially during high tide.
“It’s a monster hurricane out there — it’s bringing along with it something to be feared,” Myers said, referring to the “extremely angry ocean” that Irma has been churning for so long.
Irma sustained 185-mph winds for 37 hours, the longest any cyclone in the world has maintained such intensity. Super Typhoon Haiyan previously set the record in 2013 when it maintained winds at that level for 24 hours.
Rainfall totals of 4 to 8 inches are expected with localized amounts to a foot, which can lead to significant flooding issues. Poor drainage areas will be particularly susceptible to flooding from Irma’s torrential rainfall and road closures are possible.
While some fluctuations in strength are likely to occur, Irma is expected to maintain major hurricane status into the weekend. Locations near the center of the storm will be buffeted by wind gusts of 100 to 150 mph which can easily knock down power lines and trees and cause damage to roofs and structures.
“Any land within 185 miles of the Irma’s center could see damage and any place within 50 to 60 miles of the center could experience catastrophic damage,” Kottlowski said.
Ripple-effect travel delays will be felt across the country, not only domestic but also international travel, according to Myers.
How quickly Irma turns to the north after lashing Cuba, the Turks and Caicos and Bahamas will determine whether the center of the storm makes landfall in southern Florida or skirts right along the east coast of Florida.
“The timing of this turn is critical for where Irma will track during Sunday,” Kottlowski said.
If Irma turns quickly to the north and passes closer to the Bahamas, the center of the storm and the worst of the rain and wind would stay just offshore of the east coast of Florida.
If Irma is slower to turn to the north, the storm would make landfall over the Florida Keys later Saturday and bring more severe impacts all the way up the Florida Peninsula. Isolated tornado spin-ups would threaten areas on the northeast side of the storm. This scenario would bring hurricane-force conditions across much of the state.
Latest trends indicate that the slower turn is more likely at this point, which would bring severe impacts to much of the Florida Peninsula.
A storm surge can occur even if the center of the storm stays offshore.
“Although Hurricane Matthew last year passed east of Jacksonville, they experienced flooding due to water pushing into the St. Johns River,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll said. “The same thing could happen with Irma.”
All interests across Florida should closely monitor the progress of Irma, heed all evacuation orders and be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
Preparations for the storm should not end in Florida as locations from Georgia to the Carolinas will be next in line to face Irma’s wrath.
“AccuWeather’s preliminary estimate of potential economic cost from Hurricane Irma in the U.S. is $50-100 billion,” Myers said. “If the eye passes right over Miami, then it will be even more.”