Hurricane Irma battering Florida Peninsula, with ‘catastrophic’ storm surge feared – Washington Post

(This post will be updated throughout Sunday, every hour or so. It was last updated at 6:15 p.m. to reflect the latest National Hurricane Center advisory and current conditions in South Florida.)

Extremely dangerous Hurricane Irma first crashed into the Florida Keys on Sunday morning and then made a second landfall on Marco Island on Florida’s west coast Sunday afternoon, unleashing violent wind gusts and storm-surge flooding. As the vicious storm scoots up Florida’s west coast into this evening, forecasters fear this storm will go down as one of the worst in the state’s history.

At 6 p.m., the storm was centered 20 miles south-southeast of Fort Myers, where wind gusts of around 100 mph were possible over the next hour. The storm center was headed north at 14 mph toward Sarasota and Tampa, where winds of 75 to 100 were expected to arrive later tonight.

As the storm’s eyewall, the zone of most violent winds, passed through Naples the winds gusted to 142 mph just after 4:30 p.m. Then, in the following 90 minutes, the water levels rose 7 feet due to storm surge.

Irma’s peak winds of 110 mph, with higher gusts, had dropped 20 mph from the morning, classifying it as a strong Category 2 hurricane (down from a 4). Even with slow weakening likely to continue as the storm interacts with land, it remains very serious and life-threatening.

Coastal waters could rise 10 to 15 feet above normally dry land, inundating homes, businesses and roads, an “imminent danger,” according to the National Hurricane Center.

“The Keys through Tampa will likely experience the worst storm surge event that area has seen in generations,” said Bill Read, a former Hurricane Center director.

When Irma crashed into the Keys early Sunday as a Category 4, following Hurricane Harvey’s assault in Texas, it marked the first time on record that two Category 4 storms had made landfall in the United States in the same year.

Because of the storm’s magnitude, the entire state of Florida is being severely affected by damaging winds and torrential rains. Tropical storm and hurricane conditions were also predicted to spread into the Florida Panhandle, eastern Alabama, much of Georgia, and southern South Carolina by Monday.

The latest

An extreme wind warning was issued for the area around Fort Myers through due to the likelihood of destructive winds. As the eyewall moved over Naples, it reported sustained winds of 93 mph and a gust to 142 mph.

Josh Morgerman, a hurricane chaser positioned in Naples, described the scene: “Went thru violent, destructive winds. Screaming, white out, wreckage blowing by in fog.” Then the calm eye moved overhead.

The Weather Service also issued a flash flood emergency for region from Marco Island to Naples through 6 p.m. due to the expected sudden onset of storm surge flooding.

Prior to the arrival of the storm center, water was actually retreating from Naples to Tampa due to offshore winds from the east pulling the sea back. But forecasters warned residents that about two to three hours after the storm’s center passed to the north and winds blew back onshore, waters would rush back in rapidly causing severe inundation.

In Southeast Florida, spiral bands continued to unleash tropical-storm-force winds. Sustained winds in Miami and Fort Lauderdale reached 50-60 mph through early afternoon, gusting as high as 80 to 100 mph. Miami International Airport clocked a gust to 94 mph and an isolated gust hit 100 mph at the University of Miami.

Even into the early evening, winds were gusting up to 75 mph around Miami.

Over 2.5 million customers were without power, mostly in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Early in the afternoon, the seas had risen several feet above normally dry land. Social media photos and videos showed water pouring through Miami’s streets, in between high-rises, amidst sideways sheets of rains.

Late Sunday afternoon, waters were finally starting to slowly recede around Miami.

As the storm’s spiral bands walloped South and Central Florida, the potential for tornadoes arose in the swirling air, and the Weather Service issued watches and warnings.

While the core of the storm and worst winds had passed the Keys, the Weather Service warned storm surge flooding was ongoing as winds on the storm’s backside shoved water over the islands. Gusts still reached 50 to 70 mph through 5 p.m.

Warnings in effect and predicted surge height and winds

Hurricane warnings cover all of Florida except the western Panhandle, where a tropical storm warning was in effect.

A storm-surge warning was also issued for much of the Florida Peninsula (except for a small section from North Miami Beach to Jupiter Inlet), and even extended up the Georgia coast into southern South Carolina. The Hurricane Center said that this would bring the risk of “dangerous” and “life-threatening” inundation and that the threat was highest along Florida’s southwest coast and in the Florida Keys, where it said the surge is expected to be “catastrophic.”

“In SOUTHWEST FLORIDA — the NAPLES-FT. MYERS-CAPE CORAL area, the potential exists for the worst hurricane in history,” Norcross said.

Because of the shift in the most likely storm track to the west, Miami and Southeast Florida were most likely to miss the storm’s intensely destructive core, known as the eyewall, where winds are strongest. Even so, because of Irma’s enormous size, the entire Florida Peninsula and even the Panhandle were likely to witness damaging winds. The National Hurricane Center warned that the storm would bring “life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state.”

Effects on Florida

Conditions will continue to deteriorate Sunday over Florida from south to north as Irma chugs up the coast.

The storm will move up the west coast on Sunday afternoon and evening, walloping Naples, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, Sarasota and Tampa.

Here’s a guide to what is most likely and where …

Key West/Key Largo

Time frame for worst conditions: Through Sunday afternoon.

Hazard threats: Wind, storm surge and rain.

Wind gusts of up to 50 to 70 mph should continue into the evening.

A catastrophic storm surge of 5 to 10 feet or more is expected to inundate much of the island chain. Heavy rain will add to the water issues, as anywhere from 5 to 10 inches of additional rain will fall before the worst of the storm is over. Unfortunately, the damage potential on the Keys could be landscape-altering after taking a direct hit from this storm.

Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach

Time frame for worst conditions: Through Sunday night.

Hazard threats: Strong winds, tornadoes, heavy rain.

Sustained winds of 45 to 70 mph with gusts of 80-plus mph will last well into Sunday afternoon.

Swirling winds at all levels of the atmosphere have also increased the chances of tornadoes developing at any point on Sunday, especially in locations right along the water. Rainfall totals of four to eight inches or more are expected on Sunday alone, which may exacerbate localized flooding. With Irma’s last-minute track shift to the west, the storm surge won’t be as big of a concern here as it is elsewhere, with a two- to four-foot surge expected along much of Florida’s east coast.

Naples/Fort Myers/Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg

Time frame for worst conditions: Through Monday morning.

Hazard threats: Storm surge and wind.

Irma’s ultimate destination will be along the west coast of Florida. This means the conditions will deteriorate rapidly from Naples to Tampa Bay throughout Sunday afternoon. However, Irma’s path will take it parallel to the west coast of Florida, keeping the entire region engulfed in the dangerous northeast quadrant of the storm, where winds are strongest. Sustained hurricane force winds and gusts over 100 mph should arrive in Naples Sunday afternoon and in St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay into the evening.

The most dangerous hazard for this region will be the extreme storm surge. Nowhere in the entire state will the storm-surge levels be higher than along the gulf-facing coast, with storm surge totals of eight to 12 feet and locally up to 15 feet forecast. Any coastal city from Tampa Bay south to Naples is at risk, with historic flooding (the likes of which haven’t been seen in this area since Hurricane Donna in 1960) threatening thousands of people and structures.

Orlando/Central Florida 

Time frame for worst conditions: Sunday night through Monday morning.

Hazard threats: Wind, rain, and tornadoes.

Inland areas won’t escape the effects of Irma. The storm is extremely large in size, with tropical-storm-force winds extending outward over 200 miles from the center. The wind speeds in central Florida and the Orlando area will start to pick up by late Sunday afternoon, with sustained winds of 40 to 60 mph and gusts of 70-plus mph lasting from late Sunday night through Monday morning.

Heavy rain will also cause problems, with a general six to 12-plus inches of rain expected by the time the storm is over. The threat of tornadoes will increase by Sunday night, as well, as the storm’s center tracks north along the west coast of Florida.

Jacksonville/Daytona Beach 

Time frame for worst conditions: Sunday evening through Monday afternoon.

Hazard threats: Rain, tornadoes, wind.

The northeast portion of Florida will be spared the worst of Irma but won’t escape unscathed. Sustained tropical-force winds of 40 to 55 mph will overspread the area from Daytona Beach to Jacksonville by Sunday evening, with the worst winds (gusts up to 70 mph) occurring overnight. Heavy rain will be a story line here as six to 10-plus inches of rain is expected to fall in a relatively short period.

As with other parts of the state, the tornado threat will peak overnight on Sunday as Irma’s storm center tracks northward.

Storm-surge values will be elevated (two to four feet) but should result in only minor to moderate coastal flooding.

Potential effects on Georgia and the southeastern United States

Georgia/Atlanta/South Carolina

Time frame for worst conditions: Monday morning through Tuesday morning.

Hazard threats: Wind, rain and, at the coast, storm surge

Hurricane warnings extend well into Georgia, covering over half of the state. Parts of southern South Carolina also are under a hurricane warning, with Irma poised to maintain its hurricane-force strength for several hours after landfall.

Sustained tropical force winds of 25 to 45 mph will spread over Georgia from south to north starting late Sunday night. The strongest sustained winds (40 to 50 mph) with gusts of 60-plus mph will move in on early Monday morning, lasting through Monday evening. This includes Atlanta, which is under a tropical-storm warning, where sustained winds of 25 to 40 mph with gusts up to 60 mph will occur from about 10 p.m. Sunday night to about 5 p.m. Monday afternoon. This could lead to downed trees and outages.

Heavy rain is also expected, with storm totals of six to 10 inches forecast, the bulk of which should fall Monday.

Storm surge along the Georgia/South Carolina coast will be a hazard, as well, with the Hurricane Center predicting a surge of four to six feet. Of particular concern is the duration of the storm surge. Persistent onshore winds will extend the surge component here, with elevated water levels potentially lasting up to 36 hours.

Irma’s path so far

At 3:35 p.m. Sunday, Irma had made its second U.S. landfall of the day over Marco Island, where a wind gust of 130 mph was reported.

Earlier, the storm officially made its initial U.S. landfall at Cudjoe Key at 9:10 a.m. as a Category 4 hurricane. Winds over the Keys raged, gusting to at least 94 mph in Key West (before the wind instrument failed) and up to 120 mph in Big Pine Key. Witness video showed the rising storm surge flooding Key West streets.

Before its encounter with the Keys, Irma made landfall on the north coast of Cuba as a Category 5 hurricane just after 9 p.m. Friday, with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph. It became that country’s first Category 5 hurricane since 1924. Fueled by the extremely warm ocean temperatures, Irma reintensified to the maximum hurricane classification level after weakening slightly on Friday afternoon.

As it scraped Cuba’s north coast early Saturday, it produced a sustained wind gust of 118 mph, and a gust to 159 mph was reported at Falla, Cuba, in the eyewall of the hurricane.

On Friday, before making landfall along Cuba’s north-central coast, Irma passed north of Haiti and then between Cuba’s northeast coast and the Central Bahamas.

Thursday evening, the center of the storm passed very close to the Turks and Caicos, producing potentially catastrophic Category 5 winds. The storm surge was of particular concern, as the water had the potential to rise 16 to 20 feet above normally dry land in coastal sections north of the storm center, causing extreme inundation.

A devastating storm surge and destructive winds had also probably battered the southeastern Bahamas, near Great Inagua Island.

Through early Thursday, the storm had battered islands from Puerto Rico to the northern Lesser Antilles.

While the center of Irma passed just north of Puerto Rico late Wednesday, a wind gust of 63 mph was clocked in San Juan early Wednesday evening, and more than 900,000 people were reported to be without power. In Culebra, Puerto Rico, a small island 17 miles east of the main island, a wind gust registered 111 mph in the afternoon.

On Wednesday afternoon, the storm’s eye had moved over Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, and its southern eyewall raked St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Early Wednesday afternoon, a wind gust to 131 mph was clocked on Buck Island and 87 mph on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the hurricane passed directly over Barbuda and St. Martin in the northern Leeward Islands, the strongest hurricane recorded in that region and tied with the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane as the strongest Atlantic storm to strike land.

As Barbuda took a direct hit, the weather station there clocked a wind gust to 155 mph before it went offline.

The storm also passed directly over Anguilla and St. Martin early Wednesday, causing severe damage.

Irma’s place in history

Irma’s peak intensity (185 mph) ranks among the strongest in recorded history, exceeding the likes of Katrina, Andrew and Camille — whose winds peaked at 175 mph.

Among the most intense storms on record, it trails only Hurricane Allen in 1980, which had winds of 190 mph. It is tied for second-most intense with Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane.

The storm maintained maximum wind speeds of at least 180 mph for 37 hours, longer than any storm on Earth on record, passing Super Typhoon Haiyan, the previous record-holder (24 hours).

Late Tuesday, its pressure dropped to 914 millibars (the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm), ranking as the lowest of any storm on record outside the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico in the Atlantic basin.

The storm has generated the most “accumulated cyclone energy,” a measure of a storm’s duration and intensity, of any hurricane on record.

Irma’s landfall pressure of 929 millibars in the Florida Keys was the lowest for any U.S. landfalling hurricane since Katrina (920 millibars) and for a Florida landfall since Andrew (922 millibars). It ranks as the seventh-lowest pressure of any U.S. landfalling storm.

Capital Weather Gang hurricane expert Brian McNoldy contributed to this report. Credit to tropical-weather expert and occasional Capital Weather Gang contributor Phil Klotzbach for some of the statistics in this section.

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