The National Hurricane Center says it’s looking more likely that the eye of powerful Hurricane Irma will strike the Keys, southwestern Florida and the Tampa Bay region starting Sunday. But that doesn’t mean Miami area is in the clear. It’s not.
The western part of the state will most likely get the worst of Irma. And even though Irma weakened when it raked the Cuban coast and islands, it’s expected to get its strength back over the ultra-toasty Florida Straits and hit the Sunshine State as a dangerous Category 4 storm.
“Cuba has given it a blow but it’s nowhere near being knocked out,” said private meteorologist Ryan Maue of WeatherBell Analytics. “You’re still taking a Category 4 hurricane up across the entire west coast of Florida and you’re not weakening it very fast.”
Look for Irma to hit the lower Florida Keys on Sunday morning, the southwest coast of Florida on Sunday afternoon and the Tampa region on Sunday night into Monday morning, said National Hurricane Center spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen.
The latest hurricane center forecast — which still can change a bit and has a margin of error of dozens of miles — projects Irma’s potent eye to make three landfalls into Florida: The Keys, around Fort Myers inland to Tampa and then out to open Gulf of Mexico waters briefly before returning inland, north of Homosassa Springs.
While Irma’s core likely won’t hit Southeast Florida, “that doesn’t mean we won’t have 20 inches of rain, storm surge,” said Feltgen, who is based in Miami. “We’re going to have a hurricane here.” That includes high winds, just not as high as what the west coast of the state will experience.
Feltgen said he worries that people will misinterpret the forecast track change that puts Miami out of predicted area for Irma’s eye. Irma is so large that even if the eye is to the west, Southeast Florida will get dangerous winds and water.
The Tampa region looks likely to get a direct hit, although that could still change, Feltgen said Saturday.
For decades disaster officials and meteorologists have put the Tampa region as one of their worst-case scenarios, along with Miami, New Orleans, Houston and New York. The other four cities have been hit in the last 25 years but Tampa has not been hit by a major hurricane since 1921 when its population was about 10,000, Feltgen said. Now it has around 3 million people.
“It’s certainly one of those metropolitan areas where we have one of the greatest concerns, particularly with storm surge, particularly with inexperience,” Feltgen said.
Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach especially worries about storm surge on the west coast, calling southwest Florida “surge central.”
“The surge damage is going to be bad,” Klotzbach said. “That honestly more than the wind is going to be the story.”
Looking at hurricane center storm surge maps splashed with bright yellows and reds for deep surges, Klotzbach said Naples makes him especially nervous.
“Look at Naples, the entire town of Naples is underwater,” Klotzbach said. “That is horrible. God that looks awful.”
The hurricane center forecasts 8 to 12 feet (2.4 to 3.7 meters) of storm surge in extreme southwestern Florida, an area that includes Naples. Experts say the area from Venice to Captiva Island will get about 5 to 8 feet (1.5 to 2.4 meters), with the Tampa Bay region getting about 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) further north. Southeast Florida up to Boca Raton can expect 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters) of storm surge, with areas further north on the east coast of Florida forecast to get 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters) of storm surge.
High wind, tornadoes and heavy rainfall of up to 20 inches (0.5 meters) are forecast for most of Florida.
Overall, it will likely be less costly if Irma hits the west rather than east coast because the east coast has more people and more buildings, said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
But with hurricane-force winds that can stretch more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide, all of Florida can be under Irma at any given time, McNoldy said.
Meteorologists still disagree about how strong Irma will be when it hits Florida. Maue sees Irma strengthening a lot more over “bathtub”-like warm waters that are pushing 90 degrees. The Hurricane Center projects the storm hitting as a Category 4 storm, but Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private Weather Underground, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Irma hit as a Category 3 hurricane.
Irma is likely to remain a hurricane as it continues to chug up through Florida perhaps to the Georgia line, Feltgen said. Georgia will at least get tropical-storm-force winds.
It’s a few days out and it can still change, but forecasters worry that the remnants of Irma will stall out in the Tennessee Valley and bring lots of rain and potential flooding.
If the forecast track doesn’t change — it is likely to shift — the Nashville area will end up getting the remnants of both Harvey and Irma.
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