First hurricane warnings issued as Irma has Miami in its sights - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

First hurricane warnings issued as Irma has Miami in its sights

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Photo courtesy of NBC News. Photo courtesy of NBC News.

by ERIK ORTIZ, CORKY SIEMASZKO and ALEX JOHNSON

Hurricane warnings were issued for a large area of southern Florida late Thursday as Hurricane Irma was on a track to slam into Miami after it cut a fatal and destructive path through the Caribbean on Thursday.

At 11 p.m. ET, the storm — which has already been blamed for at least 12 deaths in the Caribbean and has left more than a million people in the dark in Puerto Rico — was about 55 miles east-northeast of Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas with winds of 165 mph.

Hurricane warnings were issued Thursday night from Jupiter Inlet south around the Florida peninsula to Bonita Beach, as well as for the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.

The National Hurricane Center said a slight westward shift in Irma's projected path indicated that it could make landfall just east of Key Largo, bringing its eye wall, which carries the most destructive winds, over Miami with major hurricane winds. Conditions could start to deteriorate over South Florida before dawn Saturday as Irma approaches, it said.

The good news is that Irma "has peaked in intensity" and is likely to weaken very slowly over the next four days, the NBC News Weather Unit said. But even a slightly weaker Irma could do serious damage to Miami and lash the low-lying city with 129-mph winds and gusts of up to 159 mph.

Hurricane-force winds extended 70 miles from the center, so even if Irma somehow doesn't make direct landfall on Florida at all, its very large wind field promises dangerous surf and coastal flooding throughout the Southeast coast well away from the center into early next week, forecasters said.

"We could see a little bit of weakening as it interacts with land and moves farther north into some high wind shear, but Irma's going to remain dangerous for the next several days," Michael Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist for the National Hurricane Center, told NBC News.

"This could easily be the most costly storm in U.S. history, which is saying a lot considering what just happened two weeks ago," Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, told NBC Miami, referring to Hurricane Harvey.

Gov. Rick Scott warned Floridians on Thursday: "If you're told to evacuate, get out quickly. Based on what we now know, Miami-Dade will have major hurricane impacts with deadly storm surge, deadly storm surge and life-threatening winds."

About 31,000 people have already fled the Florida Keys, said Scott, who invoked the memory of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that struck 25 years ago, killing 44 people and doing more than an adjusted $47.8 billion in damage just in the Sunshine State alone. It nearly wiped the city of Homestead off the map.

"This is much worse and more devastating on its current path," he said.

Path projections at 8 p.m. indicated that Irma might not make a second landfall in the Southeast, a possibility that forecasters have warned about for several days. Under that calculation, the weakened storm system would likely move into Georgia on Monday, the hurricane center said.

The governors of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina have all declared states of emergency.

Before it arrives in Florida, Irma is expected to produce punishing storm surges of 15 to 20 feet across the Turks & Caicos Islands, a low-lying British territory, and parts of southeastern and central Bahamas beginning Thursday might into Saturday morning.

It hit Puerto Rico with a glancing blow late Wednesday, killing at least three people, after battering the islands of Barbuda, St. Bart and St. Martin.

Related: Turks & Caicos, Bahamas Brace for Hurricane Irma's Wrath

Thousands of people were left homeless in French-controlled St. Martin, where four people were reported dead and thousands more were left homeless after Irma demolished 95 percent of buildings on the island. One death was reported on the Dutch side of the island.

Another death was reported on the island of Barbuda.

Video obtained by NASA had the eye of Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record, passing just to the north of the Dominican Republic on Thursday morning.

"Extremely dangerous Hurricane Irma heading for the Turks and Caicos islands," the National Hurricane Center said. "Hurricane and storm surge watch are in effect for portions of South Florida and the Florida Keys."

Florida Power & Light, the nation's third-largest electric utility, warned that damage to the state's energy grid could be devastating.

"Our service area will likely see widespread and substantial destruction that will require crews to literally rebuild parts of our electric system," Eric Silagy, the utility's president and chief executive, said Thursday. "Restoring power through repairs is measured in days, while rebuilding our electric system could be measured in weeks."

Silagy said FPL, which has mutual-assistance agreements with utilities in other states, was positioning 11,000 employees and contractors in areas that are expected to be hardest hit. "But no utility is hurricane-proof, especially when facing a storm such as Irma," he said.

The state was also working to get more fuel to drivers as many areas began running low on gas.

About 39 percent of gas stations in Miami-Fort Lauderdale were without fuel late Wednesday afternoon, according to GasBuddy, a Boston company that tracks fuel prices and availability. As far north as Gainesville, near the Georgia border, 44 percent of stations had run dry, it said.

"We know fuel is very important. And we're absolutely devoting every state resource to addressing this and we're talking to the federal government about their support," Scott said.

In Washington, President Donald Trump said, "Florida is as well prepared as you can be for something like this, and we'll see what happens."

"We are with the people of Florida," added the president, whose Mar-a-Lago mansion is in Palm Beach.

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