Forecasters: Hurricane Irma to regain Category 5 strength

Posted at 6:48 AM, Sep 08, 2017

Hurricane Irma battered parts of Cuba and the central Bahamas, and forecasters predicted Friday evening the massive storm will strengthen into a Category 5 storm again before it slams into the Florida Keys.

Irma, which has sustained winds of 155 mph, has left a trail of devastation and death in much of the Caribbean as it advanced toward South Florida.


Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center say the storm will be begin to turn north on Saturday as it passes Cuba then head toward the Keys and cities on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Irma is expected to have sustained winds of 160 mph by the time it makes landfall in the Florida Keys on Sunday.

"Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe," the National Weather Service tweeted.

There were worries the storm's most powerful winds, on the northeastern side of the core, could pummel Miami, but it appears the city will avoid a direct hit, while still getting pounded by strong winds and heavy rains.

At least 24 people were killed this week when Irma pummeled northern Caribbean islands such as Barbuda and the Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people -- nearly 70% of the US territory's utility customers -- were left without power, the governor's office said.

Irma slammed the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas early Friday before its center headed between northern Cuba and central Bahamas.

Hurricane Irma: Live updates

Irma is expected be near the Florida Keys and South Florida by early Sunday, and many residents there are moving inland or to shelters. Some counties are under evacuation orders.

"If you have been ordered to evacuate, leave now. Not tonight, not in an hour, now," Gov. Rick Scott said Friday in a 7 p.m. news conference. Staying in homes could subject residents to storm surge as high as 12 feet, the governor added.

Forecasters have advised that the storm's potential path could change as it passes Cuba then turns north toward Florida and that most of Florida will feel the storm's impact.

At its peak, a then-Category 5 Irma sustained maximum wind speeds of at least 185 mph for longer (37 hours) than any storm on record. The Red Cross estimates 1.2 million people have already been battered by the storm.

Tracking Hurricane Irma's path


Here are the latest developments


-- Around 5 p.m. ET, Irma's center was about 195 miles east of Caibarien, Cuba, moving west with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph. Hurricane-force winds could be felt as far as 70 miles from the center.

A day-by-day look at Hurricane Irma's path ahead

-- Irma's bands whipped the Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night and Friday morning, and is forecast to move between the north coast of Cuba and the central Bahamas through Saturday.

-- Conditions on the northern coast of Cuba deteriorated rapidly Friday evening, CNN's Patrick Oppmann reported from Caibarien. As rain flew sideways, visibility plummeted and it was impossible to travel. Oppmann reported many Cubans were staying in the homes, protecting their belongings.

The anatomy of a hurricane

-- Irma led to at least 24 deaths in the Caribbean, including nine in unspecified French territories, one on Barbuda, one at the British overseas territory of Anguilla, two in Dutch-administered St. Maarten, four in the British Virgin Islands, four on the US Virgin Islands, and three in Puerto Rico. Officials didn't specify which French Caribbean territories had nine deaths but earlier indicated some had been on the island of St. Martin.

-- The three deaths in Puerto Rico were at least loosely linked to Irma. One person died from a fall while being taken to a shelter; another was killed in a car crash; a third died of electrocution, the governor said.

-- In the British Virgin Islands, "roads are impassable, and there is currently no access to some areas," Gov. Gus Jaspert said.

-- Hurricane warnings are in effect for parts of central Cuba, and the southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas. Hurricane warnings also are in effect from Sebastian Inlet on the east coast, southward around the Florida Peninsula to Anna Maria Island on the panhandle. The warning includes the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.

-- The Red Cross said as many as 26 million people could be exposed to destructive winds and torrential rain just in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba.

-- Both the French and Dutch portions of the island of St. Martin are suffering looting in the wake of Irma, authorities said.

Hurricane Irma victims need your help

-- Irma could overwhelm parts of the Bahamas, a nation of about 390,000, with storm surges of up to 20 feet -- well above the islands' elevation, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.


Florida and the Southeast prepare for Irma


The National Hurricane Center has warned Irma could "landfall in Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and will bring life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the center."

There could be storm surges up to 12 feet in coastal areas, which could "inundate so many low-level houses, especially on the Keys," Myers said.

US and European forecast models predict the eye could strike the Keys and then the Everglades, west of Miami, on Saturday night into Sunday morning.

"It's not a question of whether Florida is going to be impacted -- it's a question of how bad Florida is going to be impacted," Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Friday, urging people to heed evacuation orders.

'Ahead of the game': Florida seniors, nursing homes prep for Hurricane Irma

Though the core has the most power, Irma is huge; winds of at least tropical-storm force cover 70,000 square miles -- larger than the area of Florida (65,000 square miles). At some point late Saturday into Tuesday, the entire state could see at least hurricane-force gusts of 74 mph and above, CNN's Myers said.

In Miami-Dade County alone, about 660,000 of its 2.6 million population have been asked to evacuate, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.

Farther north, on Daytona Beach, Michael Hanna was itching to leave Friday morning but first had to board up his beach apparel store.

"I stayed a little longer than anybody else so I can cover up my business," he said. "My kids are panicking; my wife, she's panicking. ... (Saturday) by 6 a.m., 7 a.m., we're going to be on the road, heading to Georgia."

Disney, other Florida theme parks closing as Irma nears

Irma could cause power outages for weeks in parts of South Florida, and more than 4.1 million customers -- or 9 million people -- could be affected by outages at some point, Florida Power and Light Co. said. "Our crews will likely have to rebuild parts of the system," the utility said.

Evacuees stocked up on supplies, waited for hours at gas stations and sat through massive traffic jams.

People also flocked to South Florida airports, but schedules were in flux. More than half of Friday's flights were canceled at Miami International Airport, and "most of the airlines will suspend flights after (Friday) through Monday, depending on the condition of the airport,"spokesman Greg Chin said.

Florida is not the only state preparing for possible impact. Long, the FEMA administrator, said people from Alabama to North Carolina should watch the storm.

Georgia's Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 30 counties and has ordered evacuations for coastal areas east of Interstate 95, including Savannah, starting Saturday. The governors of North and South Carolina also declared states of emergency.

Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate closes ahead of Hurricane Irma


Devastation to islands


Irma brought heavy rain and powerful winds Thursday night and Friday morning to the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands.

Residents of the islands, a British overseas territory with about 35,000 people, were told to stay put.

Desmond Piccolo Henry took shelter in his concrete home with his wife and a friend on one of the islands, Providenciales, as the storm rocked the area early Friday.

"It's a concrete house, but trust me, it was shaking. My friend was saying, 'Oh my God, I think God is coming, why are we going through this?' "

Henry's home survived with just a few shingles lost, but people have told him that roofs were torn off nearby and debris crushed some cars. Video he posted to Facebook showed downed tree limbs and other destruction.

The capital island of Grand Turk suffered "quite a bit of damage" Thursday night, including to part of a hospital's roof, Gov. John Freeman told CNN.

In Puerto Rico, about 56,680 customers were without water, with the island's northeast hit the hardest, according to Jesus Poupart of the emergency operations center.


After Irma, Hurricane Jose looms


The Caribbean islands already pummeled by Irma have begun assessing the damage, finding shredded buildings, battered cars and streets submerged in water.

Barbuda, one of two major islands in the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, is barely habitable, with about 95% of its buildings damaged, Prime Minister Gaston Browne.

Browne estimated the damage will cost $100 million to fix on the island of 1,800 residents.

"It looks like (a) garbage disposal," Marlon Carr, a photographer who toured the island with Browne, told CNN on Thursday. "There was rubble and roof galvanized all over the island. It looked like some of the houses ... were imploded on."

Irma's eye passed directly over Barbuda on Wednesday, and now the northeastern Caribbean nation is anxiously watching Hurricane Jose to the east, which has strengthenedto a Category 4 storm.

Anguilla, Barbuda, St. Martin and St. Barts are under a hurricane warning for Jose, which could pass close to those islands Saturday. The government called for voluntary evacuations from Barbuda, Browne said.

Irma also badly hit St. Martin with about 50 people reported injured.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte described the looting situation in St. Maarten, the Dutch portion of the island, as serious, a spokesman for his office said Friday.

The government said emergency flights delivering water and other supplies to the island will be used to take residents and visitors off it.

"Our worst fears have played out in Barbuda and elsewhere," said Walter Cotte, regional director for the Americas for the Red Cross. "We can't yet assess the full extent of damage, but we expect that the Red Cross will be delivering extensive support to many thousands over the coming weeks and months."

Hurricane season hasn't peaked yet. Here's what to expect

Are you affected by Irma? Text, iMessage or WhatsApp your videos, photos and stories to CNN: +1 347-322-0415.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect peak wind speeds for Hurricane Irma. At its strongest, sustained winds reached 185 mph.

™ & © 2017 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.