“Hurricane Irma has intensified into an extremely dangerous Category 5 hurricane,” the National Hurricane Center says, citing the latest data from NOAA and Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft.
With maximum sustained winds of 180 mph, Irma is a Category 5 — the most serious type of major hurricane on the Saffir-Sampson wind scale.
Irma is the strongest hurricane the NHC has ever recorded in the Atlantic basin outside of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, the agency says.
Storm preparations are being rushed to completion in the Leeward Islands, where the first tropical-storm force winds could arrive later Tuesday. Irma is currently forecast to hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday before continuing on toward the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
The storm will bring “life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall,” the federal agency says.
While it’s still too early to say where Irma might have the most impact on the continental United States, the hurricane center says, “There is an increasing chance of seeing some impacts from Irma in the Florida Peninsula and the Florida Keys later this week and this weekend.”
Irma is predicted to maintain winds of at least 150 mph for the next five days.
Long-range forecast models are “in strong agreement on a sharp northward turn on Sunday morning,” says Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
The exact timing of that right-hand turn is still unknown, McNoldy adds — outlining a variable that he says will have “huge implications” for people in Florida. Depending on when it occurs, Irma’s turn north could send the storm up either of Florida’s coasts, or through its center.
“Irma is an extremely impressive hurricane in both infrared and visible satellite images,” the National Hurricane Center says, noting its distinct eye that is 25-30 miles wide.
The storm is moving westward at 14 mph, forcing hurricane warnings to be issued for a string of Caribbean islands:
- U.S. Virgin Islands
- Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra
- Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis
- Saba, St. Eustatius and Sint Maarten
- Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy
- British Virgin Islands
A hurricane watch has been declared in a number of areas, including the Turks and Caicos and the northern coast of Haiti.
Category 5 status means “catastrophic” damage will occur on lands touched by the hurricane, which is currently predicted to remain a major hurricane as it makes its way west toward the U.S. coast.
As the storm’s track has become more defined, the governors of Florida and Puerto Rico declared preemptive states of emergency.
” ‘We have established protocols for the safety of all,’ Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said, urging islanders to take precautions.
“Rossello said 4 to 8 inches of rain were expected, with wind gusts up to 60 mph.
“A few hours later, Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in all 67 counties in the state.”
Here’s how the hurricane center describes the damage that could result from a Category 5 hurricane:
“A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”