As of 11 a.m., Hurricane Irma drifted toward the Leeward Islands with winds churning at 180 mph, which makes the storm the strongest ever recorded outside the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Hurricane Center.
As Irma strengthens, forecasts continue to warn that the hurricane will likely nail the Florida Keys. Monroe County officials have now issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors beginning at sunrise Wednesday. Keys residents are not yet required to leave, but conditions could change rapidly as the storm moves closer.
"We value our visitors and want them to be safe," Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said today. "This is the reason why we need them to calmly leave the Keys with plenty of advance notice before the storm may reach our shores."
For now, it's too early to tell if the storm will directly hit Miami or the Keys. But forecasts continue looking worse. The NHC said today that Irma is a "potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane and will bring life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards to portions of the northeastern Leeward Islands beginning later today and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico beginning tomorrow."
The storm has gained some serious power over the past 24 hours: At 11 a.m. yesterday, the storm had max speeds of 120 mph. The hurricane's track over the next few days means a lot in terms of wind speed: If the storm tracks closer to the mountainous regions in Cuba, it could lose some power. But the latest forecasts show that option is becoming less likely, and the storm is so large that even indirect hits could still be catastrophic. As of now, the storm is expected to drift just north-northeast of Cuba and is tracking toward the Keys.
Over the next 48 hours, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and other islands in the Caribbean are in for disaster. The NHC warns the Leeward Islands are in for seven- to 11-foot waves as the cyclone approaches.
"The chance of direct impacts from Irma later this week and this weekend is increasing in the Florida Keys and portions of the Florida Peninsula," the NHC wrote in its latest advisory. "However, it is too soon to specify the timing and magnitude of the impacts. Elsewhere, it is too early to determine what direct impacts Irma might have on the continental United States. Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should ensure that they have their hurricane plan in place."
Because the storm is still about five days from reaching Florida, its exact track is still unknown. But the latest storm-track models don't look good: For one, the models show the storm heading directly north up the peninsula in varying degrees. Moreover, the storm is so large the entire state could experience hurricane-force winds all at once:
Thus, county officials are already hinting that people might need to evacuate. County Commission Chair Esteban Bovo tweeted just before 11:30 a.m. today that residents in low-lying areas should make plans to evacuate somewhere safe as of tomorrow night. It appears Bovo jumped the gun a bit and deleted his tweet already, but it's a good idea to take note of whether you're in an evacuation zone and make a plan to get out of town if needed.
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Officials across Miami-Dade are rolling out as much help as they can for what increasingly looks to be a historically awful storm hitting some portion of Florida by the end of the week.
Miami Beach city officials are now handing out ten sandbags per family to residents at 451 Dade Blvd. while supplies last.
Miami Beach Residents: There will be sandbag distribution at 451 Dade Blvd, 10 bags per family & you must show your ID. #HurricaneIrma— City of Miami Beach (@MiamiBeachNews) September 5, 2017