After battering Cuba on Friday and leaving more than 20 dead across the Caribbean, newly strengthened Hurricane Irma is taking aim at Florida.
The enormous storm regained Category 5 status late Friday as thousands of people in the Caribbean fought desperately to find shelter or escape their storm-blasted islands and more than 6 million people in Florida and Georgia were warned to leave their homes.
Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the eastern part of Cuba reported no major casualties or damage by mid-afternoon after Irma rolled north of the Caribbean’s biggest islands.
Over the course of Friday, the forecast for Hurricane Irma’s potential path continued to shift westward, moving away from predicting a direct hit on the heavily populated Miami area.
At 2 a.m. Saturday, the storm was located about 275 miles off the coast of Miami, with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph. It was moving west at 12 mph, and expected to turn toward the northwest later in the day.
Forecasters now expect the storm to be near the Middle Keys early Sunday morning and approach the state’s southwest coast by that afternoon. Hurricane wind conditions are expected in portions of southern and central Florida and the Florida Keys as early as Saturday night. Outer bands have already started to effect the southern region.
There is still plenty of time for a wobble or shift in course and tracks can have an 80- to 90-mile margin of error two days out, National Hurricane Center forecaster Mike Brennan said. So the southeast coast remains very much in play for serious damage.
And with a storm so large, it’s unlikely that anywhere in South Florida will dodge Irma’s fury. The National Weather Service continues to rank risks from wind and storm surge over the coming days as extreme.
“We still could have 100-plus mile per hour gusts over the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and even Palm Beach metro areas,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Kevin Scharfenberg. “We’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.”
All of South Florida remains under a hurricane warning, with evacuation orders for parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties that include 680,000 people in Miami-Dade. All residents and visitors have been ordered out of the Keys. A watch has also been extended north along the east coast to Sebastian Inlet and on the west coast to Anna Maria Island, essentially putting the entire lower half of the state on alert.
On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott also ordered seven cities evacuated just south of Lake Okeechobee over concerns that the lake’s 1930s-era dike might fail. Evacuations also spread across 15 other counties, including parts of Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Collier and Pinellas counties.
The South Florida coast and Keys are also under a storm surge warning, with surge levels projected to reach between five and 10 feet on the east coast and eight to 12 feet from Cape Sable to Captiva. Forecasters warned that the Naples area could see a significant surge as Irma pushes water across the Gulf’s continental shelf.
The risk for flood-prone Tampa Bay is profound and the area is under a storm surge warning.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.