Update 11 p.m.: South Florida is now under a hurricane warning as Irma approaches the peninsula.
The maximum sustained winds have weakened a bit to 165 mph, but remains a strong Category 5 hurricane.
The chance of tropical storm-force winds has risen to 93 percent in West Palm Beach. Hurricane chance is 47 percent, according to forecasters.
Update 8 p.m.: Hurricane Irma’s top winds remained at 175 mph about 55 miles west of Grand Turk Island as it maintained a course aimed at South Florida.
The Category 5 storm continues moving northwest at about 16 mph, holding a collision course with South Florida where it could be a strong Category 4 storm by Sunday. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 70 miles from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 185 miles, giving it a damaging reach as wide as the state itself.
The dangers of storm surge and hurricane winds this strong are “life threatening,” Robert Molleda, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, stressed again in an 8:30 p.m briefing.
Minutes later, Gov. Rick Scott ordered mandatory evacuations from seven cities around Lake Okeechobee Friday: South Bay, Lake Harbor, Pahokee, Moore Haven, Clewiston, Belle Glade and Canal Point.
A statement from Scott’s office said, “Based on recent forecasts, the U.S. Army Corps has been reviewing how the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike will be impacted. Governor Scott spoke to Col. Jason Kirk with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today and the Corps believes there will be additional impacts from excessive wind pushing some water over the Dike. While they have assured the Governor that the structural integrity of the Dike will not be compromised, Governor Scott has ordered voluntary evacuations beginning immediately in the cities surrounding the southern half of Lake Okeechobee from Lake Port to Canal Point in Hendry, Palm Beach and Glades counties.”
Earlier Thursday, Scott said, “We cannot save you once the storm hits. Once there is an evacuation order, get out.”
As motorists clogged major arteries, Scott urged residents not to take more gas than they need at stations that have supplies.
A Hurricane Watch is in effect for Jupiter Inlet southward around the Florida peninsula to Bonita Beach, including the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.
A Storm Surge Watch is in effect for Jupiter Inlet southward around the Florida peninsula to Bonita Beach.
Update 5 p.m.: Hurricane Irma remains a powerful Category 5 storm aimed at Florida where it is expected to make landfall as a strong Category 4 on Sunday.
Tropical storm-force winds are expected in Palm Beach County by Saturday afternoon with hurricane force-winds hitting predawn Sunday.
The National Weather Service in Miami used strong language in describing the potential impacts of Irma, including “complete destruction of mobile homes.”
“Structural damage to sturdy buildings, numerous large trees snapped or uprooted, widespread power and communication outages,” said meteorologist Kevin Scharfenberg. “We’d rather not focus on category because a Category 3 to 5 means real risk of life-threatening destructive winds.”
National Hurricane Center forecasters said the strong Bermuda High nudged Irma’s path further south and west.
A hurricane watch is in effect for Jupiter Inlet south around the tip of the peninsula and Lake Okeechobee. A storm surge watch is also in effect for the same area. A “watch” means there is an estimated 48 hours before hurricane-force winds will hit an area.
Update 2 p.m.: Hurricane Irma is heading toward the Turks and Caicos Islands with 175 mph winds and moving west-northwest at 16 mph.
A Storm Surge Watch is in effect for:
* Jupiter Inlet southward around the Florida peninsula to Bonita
* Florida Keys
A Hurricane Watch is in effect for:
* Jupiter Inlet southward around the Florida peninsula to Bonita
* Florida Keys
* Lake Okeechobee
* Florida Bay
* Cuba from Matanzas province eastward to Guantanamo province
Update 1 p.m.: The National Weather Service has issued a Hurricane Irma threat graphic to give you a better idea of what to expect.
Update 11 a.m.: A hurricane watch has been issued for the Florida Peninsula from Jupiter Inlet south, including Lake Okeechobee.
A storm surge watch has also been issued for Jupiter Inlet south around the peninsula to Bonita Beach including the Florida Keys.
A watch is issued 48 hours before hurricane or storm surge conditions are expected in the area.
As of the 11 a.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center, Irma’s winds were at 175 mph and heading west-northwest at 16 mph. The minimum central pressure was 921 mb.
Forecasters said there has been no change in the track guidance, which brings the core of Irma to southeast Florida in about three days as a major hurricane.
While the winds may have slowed slightly from their high of 185 mph, National Hurricane Center forecasters said there is nothing to weaken the storm as it moves closer to Florida.
Hurricane force-winds extend outward up to 60 miles form the center of Irma. Tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 185 miles.
“We know it will come very close to South Florida, but 50 miles will make all the difference between tens of billions of dollars and a few billion dollars,” said Jeff Masters, a hurricane expert and co-founder of Weather Underground. “The thing to emphasize is if you are in the cone, you are in the cone, you are in danger of a direct hit.”
Storm surge inundation levels are available on the National Hurricane Center’s website.
Update 8 a.m.: Hurricane Irma maintained its 180 mph wind speed this morning as it strafes the Dominican Republic and nears vulnerable Haiti.
Previous story: Hurricane Irma continued its ominous trek toward Florida overnight with little change in forecast path or wind intensity.
As of the 5 a.m. update from the National Hurricane Center, Irma was a 180-mph major tropical cyclone moving west-northwest at 17 mph.
Under the current forecast, the center of Irma will be just north of Palm Beach County at 8 p.m. Sunday. Tropical storm-force winds could begin late Friday.
Forecasters said Irma may weaken slightly in its westward path, but that it will likely make landfall in Florida as a Category 4 hurricane.
While the center of the track is taking the storm along the east coast of the state, all of the Florida peninsula remains in the cone, and forecasters pleaded that people not focus on the center of the forecast track.
Track errors at forecast days 4 and 5 are between 175 to 225 miles.
Hurricane watches for the Keys and South Florida are expected today.
A hurricane watch means you have approximately 48 hours before hurricane-force winds reach your area. A warning is issued 36 hours in advance.
At 4 a.m. Irma was passing north of the eastern Dominican Republic and was 225 miles east-southeast of Grand Turk Island.
While Irma is not forecast to reach Florida until Sunday, tropical storm-force winds are possible as early as Friday night in portions of extreme South Florida and officials are urging everyone to have preparations complete by then.
“This is a growing and serious situation,” said Kevin Scharfenberg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami. “We have lots of computer models, not just one, and, unfortunately, they are in very good agreement right now that there will be a hurricane in the neighborhood this weekend.”
“People need to act as if they are sure the storm is coming at its worst, even if we can’t be sure the worst is coming,” said Bryan Norcross, a Weather Channel hurricane expert who is credited with saving lives during Hurricane Andrew when he was a Miami meteorologist. “If the storm were to go right up Interstate 95, it would be worse than Wilma, significantly worse.”
Hurricane Wilma, the last storm to bear that name, hit on the west coast of Florida with Category 3-force. By the time it reached Palm Beach County, it was a Category 2.
Eric Blake, a National Hurricane Center scientist, said seeing powerhouse Irma so closely follow devastating Hurricane Harvey reminded him of the 2004-2005 storm seasons that ripped Florida from the Panhandle to Palm Beach.
“Ugh,” he said.
— Michael Ventrice (@MJVentrice) September 7, 2017
Perhaps at no time in history has the atmosphere been so scrutinized as this week with dozens of weather balloons launching daily across the belly of the country to measure an upper-level trough that plays a crucial role in Irma’s forecast.
It’s that trough, which is digging east with the jet stream, that could tug Irma north into a weak area on the west side of the Bermuda High and steer it to the east of Florida.
While the that path would be similar to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, forecasters said Irma is a more difficult storm to predict at this point because Matthew was coming from the south, after having already made a right turn.
“Irma is coming in from the southeast, and these storms from the southeast are much more problematic because they have to make a stronger turn,” said Dan Kottlowski, a hurricane expert with AccuWeather. “In this sense, it’s more dangerous than Matthew.”