WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Hurricane Lee strengthened into a powerful Category 5 storm Thursday night.
The latest computer models still continue to keep the system away from Florida.
According to the 11 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center, Lee has maximum sustained winds of 160 mph and is moving west-northwest at 14 mph.
The hurricane will continue moving in this direction for the next several days while gradually slowing down its forward speed.
Rip currents and hazardous surf will spread across the northern Caribbean on Friday and begin affecting the mainland U.S. by Sunday.
On the forecast track, Lee is expected to pass well to the north of the northern Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico over the weekend and into early next week.
Data from an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft indicate that maximum sustained winds have increased to near 160 mph with higher gusts. Additional strengthening is forecast overnight.
Fluctuations in intensity are likely over the next few days, but Lee is expected to remain a major hurricane through early next week. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 45 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 140 miles.
WPTV First Alert Weather chief meteorologist Steve Weagle said Lee is still expected to stay east of Florida.
"A key moment for Florida will be sunrise Wednesday. That's when models suggest the storm turns north," Weagle said. "All global models continue to predict a turn 650 miles off Florida's coast."
WPTV First Alert Weather meteorologist Jennifer Correa said that as Lee tracks closer to the Caribbean, it will move into areas that are very moist with less dry air.
As a result, Lee is expected to stay north of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola and east of the Bahamas and Florida.
"Seven days out, you see that curve towards the north. The good thing is that all the models are in agreement, so we know the turn is going to happen," Correa said. "But, could the hurricane end up a little closer to Bermuda or a little closer to the eastern seaboard like the mid-Atlantic?"
Correa added there will be some indirect impacts from Lee, especially for marine conditions which will impact the Caribbean, including the Bahamas, U.S. eastern seaboard, and Bermuda this weekend through next week.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday was given the hurricane's latest trajectory and details of preparations underway by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, which deployed unidentified assets to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the White House.
Lee is the 12th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 and peaks in September.
Tropical Storm Margot became the 13th named storm after forming on Thursday evening.
The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration in August forecasted between 14 to 21 named storms this season, with six to 11 of them expected to become hurricanes, and of those, two to five possibly developing into major hurricanes.