FOX 5 Quick Points:
1) At 8 a.m. this morning, Irma became the strongest storm in the Atlantic since 2005, packing winds of 175 mph.
2) While expected pass just to the north of the islands, hurricane warnings have been issued for the northern Leeward Islands, U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico with hurricane conditions expected within the next 48 hours.
3) Irma is compact, at only 350 miles across, but powerful. More strengthening is possible on Tuesday as the storm remains over very warm water.
4) While forecast to remain a major hurricane, Irma is expected to pass close to Hispaniola and Cuba later this week. A track very close to these islands (or even a landfall) could disrupt the structure of the storm and lead to more weakening.
5) The vast majority of weather models remain fixated on Florida this morning for a possible United States landfall by Sunday, however small variations in the track could lead to landfalls anywhere from the Eastern Gulf to North Carolina. It is still too early to pinpoint an exact location.
Hurricane Irma secured her place in the record books Tuesday morning, reaching category 5 strength with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph and wind gusts exceeding 200 mph. This makes it one of the top seven strongest storms by winds speed ever recorded in the Atlantic and is only 10 mph short of hurricane Allen in 1980, which holds the record with 190 mph peak winds.
Irma also exceeds Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5 last October with peak winds of 165 mph, as the strongest in the Atlantic in over a decade. Irma comes with Hurricane Harvey, likely the most destructive storm in the United States history, fresh on the minds of many.
Where Harvey’s destruction came from nearly non-stop heavy rains over a five day period in Texas, the chief concerns with Hurricane Irma are its powerful winds and what will be incredible storm surge as it approaches land.
The first areas to feel the effects of the storm will be the northern Leeward Islands later Tuesday evening, followed by the British and United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday. Hurricane warnings have been issued for all of these areas. The storm could potentially make landfall on the island of Saint Martin before quickly reemerging into the open water.
The latest hurricane models have the storm as a near miss for the island Puerto Rico, but still close enough that the island would likely see some very strong winds, heavy rain, and storm surge along the island’s northern shoreline. Irma is then forecasted to be a near miss to the island of Hispaniola during the day on Thursday before approaching Cuba on Friday.
It is once the storm approaches Cuba that the track of Irma gets a little tricky. If it takes a track close to or makes landfall in Cuba, the storm's structure could be disrupted and help to weaken Irma. If Irma stays north of Cuba and south of the Bahamas, with its center over very warm and open water, Irma could remain a very strong hurricane as she heads westward.
The key for the United States will be on Saturday when Irma is expected to get a push to the north courtesy of a dip in the jet stream and an area of high pressure out in the central Atlantic. How soon this turn occurs is the key to where Irma will go. A faster turn to the north could lead to Irma staying just off the East Coast of Florida, similar to Hurricane Matthew last year, before a possible landfall in the Carolinas. A later turn, and Irma could emerge into the warm waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, then possibly turn back into Florida, or possibly head north toward the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, or Mississippi coastlines.
The track remains uncertain, but forecasters and officials across the south are urging residents to be prepared for the worst. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has already issued a state of emergency for the entirety of South Florida. No evacuation orders have been issued as of Tuesday morning, but if Irma’s forecast track plays out they will likely be issued later this week.
Another thing to note is that while both Harvey and Irma were major hurricanes, they are also very different storms. While Harvey was a Category 4 storm at landfall, the bulk of its destruction came from days of continuous, heavy rainfall. While flooding is possible in any hurricane, Irma is a different beast in that her main threats are wind and storm surge. Unlike Harvey, Irma is expected to keep moving along, not affecting any one area for more than a 24-36 hour period. While she is a powerhouse storm on Tuesday, it is not expected to maintain this extreme level of strength as it approaches Florida, although it is still expected to be a very dangerous storm.
For the latest on information on Irma such as forecasts, tracks and models, visit MyFoxHurricane.com.