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Category 5 Hurricane Irma Approaching Leeward Islands

Satellite view of Major Hurricane Irma Tuesday afternoon
Satellite view of Major Hurricane Irma Tuesday afternoon

Irma has become the most powerful hurricane on record in the Atlantic Ocean, not including the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico. It grew in size and strength Tuesday, and could bring catastrophic life-threatening wind, storm surge and rainfall to portions of the Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by Wednesday. Irma could also directly affect the remainder of the Bahamas, Cuba, and even portions of Florida later this week and weekend.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Major Hurricane Irma had winds of 180 mph, was located 180 miles east of Antigua and moving west at 14 mph. The storm was expected to cross over the northeastern Leeward Islands Wednesday morning, then move parallel to the northern shores of the Greater Antilles islands of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba Thursday through Saturday. Thereafter, the storm has it’s eye parts of Florida and the southeastern United States. The National Hurricane Center tweeted Tuesday afternoon that chances of direct impacts to Florida have increased, and urged all those in hurricane prone areas to have a plan in place.

Considerable uncertainty abounds in the eventual track Irma might take as it relates to Florida. It became clear Sunday and Monday that there were three possible outcomes from Irma, which are explained below...

Outcome A: Hurricane Irma has been steered west (and even west-southwest) by a strong ridge of high pressure. Forecast models have been adjusting to this more westward track for several days, making it entirely plausible that Irma will be heavily influenced by the mountains of both Hispaniola and Cuba before making a turn to the north. It’s also possible that Irma would spend more time over warm water in the Gulf of Mexico before possibly approaching Florida’s west coast or the panhandle.

Outcome B: A much sharper and sooner turn to the north is seen by several reliable long range forecast models that would place much of south and southeast Florida in the cross hairs of Irma. The storm would then generally parallel the coast, either inland or just offshore, and affect a large section of Florida’s Atlantic Coast on its way to Georgia or the Carolinas. Based on Monday’s forecast data, this is the most likely scenario and could result in millions of Floridians being told to evacuate by Friday.

Outcome C: While this is the least likely scenario, it’s certainly the one that would be the best news for Florida. Hurricane Irma may drift far enough to the north to make use of an opening in the steering currents that would allow the storm to turn away from the U.S. much sooner. If this were to occur, most of Florida would be spared significant wind or surge hazards. However, the heavy rain, tornado and coastal flooding problems would likely extend up the entire eastern seaboard.

Hurricane hunter aircraft are making routine flights into Major Hurricane Irma multiple times a day to obtain more forensics on the storm.  And as each day passes, the forecast situation as it relates to Florida will become much clearer.  Regardless of where you live in the state, stocking up on supplies and making a hurricane plan are a good idea.  Floridians who live near the coast in south or central Florida should be prepared to put that plan in place by Wednesday.

Copyright 2017 WUFT 89.1

Jeff Huffman is Chief Meteorologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In addition to his full-time position at the university's radio and television stations, WUFT-FM/TV and WRUF-TV, the latter of which he co-founded, Huffman also provides weather coverage to public radio stations throughout Florida