Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Irma is one of the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricanes ever recorded, and its wind speeds remain near 180 miles per hour, with stronger gusts. As this monster churns through the Caribbean and heads toward Florida, here is the lowdown.
How dangerous is it?
Irma is a Category 5 storm, which means sustained winds of greater than 157 mph. Winds that strong can destroy framed homes and many masonry structures that aren’t reinforced. Forecasters predict that Irma’s damage may be more tornado-like than the devastation wreaked by more typical hurricanes. Normally, the worst damage from a hurricane comes in the “eyewall” area to the front right of the eye. But Irma is so big and powerful that the damage zone could be extensive regardless of exactly where its center tracks. The hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 50 miles from the center of the storm. It has already killed at least eight people and left Barbuda almost uninhabitable
Forecasters say that the winds might fluctuate a bit and that Irma may drop to Category 4, but that it will remain a powerful Category 4 or 5 hurricane for the next couple of days.
How does Irma compare with Harvey?
Harvey caused trouble by basically parking in one place and dropping mind-boggling, historic amounts of rain. Irma, by contrast, is a whirling dervish that has been sweeping through the Caribbean islands and leaving devastation in its wake. Unlike Harvey, Irma’s damage should come primarily from storm surge and the violent winds.
What could Irma do to Florida?
The National Hurricane Center says that the best predictions now bring “the core of Irma very near the southeast Florida coast in about three days.”
It’s too soon to know exactly what will happen; the storm may move over Florida’s western coast, or it could go over the southeastern part of the Florida peninsula.
Florida officials have already announced mandatory evacuation orders for certain areas such as the Florida Keys and low-lying parts of Miami-Dade County. Schools have closed, shelters are being set up, and the governor says all 7,000 members of the National Guard will be deployed as of Friday.
Is it unusual to have two strong storms back to back?
Harvey was the most powerful storm to hit the mainland U.S. in over a decade, and now Irma is hot on its heels. But this isn’t the first time two impressive storms have hit in rapid succession. In 1954, Carol and Edna menaced the East Coast within two weeks of each other and were soon followed by Hazel. In 1955, Connie and Diane “struck the North Carolina coast only five days apart,” according to the National Hurricane Center. But hurricanes draw their strength from the warmth of water below, and climate scientists point out that global climate change is increasing ocean temperatures, likely producing more powerful storms.