Hurricane Irma has strengthened to a Category 5 storm, and catastrophic damage is possible in the Florida Keys and southern Florida this weekend as a second storm has formed behind it.
Irma was packing 185 mph winds and gusts of more than 200 mph as of 5 p.m. ET Tuesday and is expected to continue churning with deadly hurricane-force winds and a dangerous storm surge across a wide swath of the Caribbean this week before moving toward southern Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
The dangerous storm is currently 130 miles east of Antigua and moving west at 15 mph. Hurricane watches and warnings have been issued across Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks and Caicos and the Leeward Islands. Conditions across the northern Leeward Islands will begin to deteriorate soon.
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Jose has formed over the open Atlantic, following closely behind Irma, the NHC said Tuesday. Jose could become a Category 2 hurricane as it brushes the northeastern-most Caribbean islands at the end of the week. However, Jose poses no threat to the U.S. or Puerto Rico as of Tuesday.
The NHC warned that residents in the Leeward Islands, already expected to face Irma, “should monitor the track” of Jose.
The NHC on Tuesday called Irma the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic basin outside of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico in NHC records.
By Sunday around 8 a.m., the hurricane is expected to be near the Florida Keys with winds of 145 mph as a Category 4 hurricane.
It is still unclear whether the storm will track up the east or west coast of Florida. If Irma travels up Florida’s west coast, it would present worst-case scenarios for Gulf cities from Naples to Tampa. If the storm travels up Florida’s east coast, the “bad” side of the storm would remain off-shore, but it could later make landfall somewhere between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday declared a state of emergency for every county to ensure that local governments have enough “time, resources and flexibility to get prepared for this dangerous storm,” according to a statement from his office.
President Donald Trump approved Scott’s declaration of a pre-landfall emergency for the entire state of Florida, the governor said in a press conference Tuesday evening.
Scott said Tuesday that it is important that Floridians keep a close eye on the storm and “do not sit and wait to prepare.”
Scott has deployed 100 members of the Florida National Guard, and nearly 7,000 troops will be reporting for duty in the coming days, the governor said.
The American Red Cross is sending 1,000 volunteers to Florida, Scott said.
“In Florida, we always prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Scott said, “and while the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared.”
In Monroe County, Florida, which includes the Florida Keys, visitors will be under a mandatory evacuation order beginning Wednesday morning, according to the county.
Residents in low-lying areas in Miami-Dade County have also been advised to evacuate starting Wednesday, Scott said.
The Monroe County School District is shuttering schools Wednesday, the county added. Schools in several other Florida counties, including Miami-Dade and Broward, will be closed Thursday and Friday, Scott said.
The University of Miami has canceled classes for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, the school announced Tuesday.
Scott said at this time there are no reported issues with availability for fuel and supplies, but he urged residents to only “take what you need.”
The Florida Keys experienced massive flooding from Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which was a Category 3 storm. The last Category 5 storm to make landfall in the Florida Keys was the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.
“If ever there was a storm to take seriously in the Keys, this is it,” Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt said in a statement released by the county. “The sooner people leave, the better.”
A spokesperson for the Naval Air Station at Key West said a separate evacuation order has been issued for the base’s 5,500 personnel and their families, effective Tuesday at 8 p.m.
The last time the base was evacuated was in September 2008 for Hurricane Ike.
Broward County, Florida Mayor Barbara Sharief said Tuesday that Broward County will feel tropical storm-level winds by Friday. The mayor said those who live in an evacuation zone should plan to evacuate, adding that extra shelters will be available. Schools in Broward County will be closed Thursday and Friday.
Category 5 is the strongest hurricane category on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane strength scale. In a Category 5 storm, winds reach more than 157 mph and damage is expected to be catastrophic, with buildings and roofs destroyed.
The Carnival Cruise Line has diverted four ships carrying more than 13,000 passengers to maintain a “safe distance” from Irma, a spokesperson said.
“The safety of our guests and team members is our first priority,” the company said in a statement. “We will continue to make adjustments as necessary.”