(TNS) - Hurricane Irma continued what appeared to be a relentless march toward Florida on Thursday while leaving a swath of catastrophic destruction on islands in the Atlantic in its wake, as forecasters kept the entire state peninsula in the middle of the fearsome system's potential path this weekend.
The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch extending from Bonita Beach to Anna Maria Island in its 2 a.m. Friday morning update on the storm, as well as a storm surge watch that extends from Bonita Beach to Venice. There is also a hurricane warning in effect that extends from Bonita Beach on the west coast of the state to Jupiter Inlet on the east coast, including Lake Okeechobee, extending south through the Florida Keys.
As of the National Hurricane Center's 8 a.m. update, Hurricane Irma had dropped to a category 4 storm, with maximum sustained winds at 150 mph, just under the category 5 threshold.
On Thursday evening, Governor Rick Scott ordered all public schools in Florida closed for Friday and Monday.
Emergency managers intensified preparations for an expected Florida landfall from one of the most powerful hurricanes in history, and countless people fled the state by road and by air. Others exited the Florida Keys and South Florida, where Irma was expected to strike overnight Saturday, even as forecasters sought to get a better fix on the storm's future, factoring in the weather system that is keeping Irma on a west-northwest track and another that is expected to turn it sharply north.
While Irma's path was forecast to make landfall on the southeast coast of Florida for much of Wednesday and Thursday, the predictions shifted a bit late Thursday afternoon, when the expected track was bumped a bit farther west. As of 8 a.m Friday morning, that trend continued.
That potential path would bring more of the storm directly over Florida, rather than skirting the east coast, with more of the state feeling more of Irma's fury. The current predicted path of the storm will have it travel the length of Florida and eventually enter Georgia Monday afternoon.
As always, forecasters urged the public not to focus on specific projected tracks, but underscored the margin for variability and the need to prepare for the storm and be ready for deviations. Irma was carrying 160 mph winds early Friday morning with a potentially devastating storm surge, and forecasters went to lengths to underscore the danger.
"The environment along the future track of Irma is favorable for the hurricane to maintain most of its current intensity," the National Hurricane Center noted, adding, "there are no obvious reasons why Irma should not remain a powerful major hurricane for the next three days while it is heading for Florida or its adjacent surroundings."
"It has become more likely that Irma will make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and bring life-threatening storm surge and wind impacts to much of the state," the center's forecast discussion noted.
The center posted a hurricane watch for South Florida, the Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay, and expected to extend that watch farther north overnight.
Caution for Sarasota-Manatee
Disparities in the most computer models had local meteorologists urging Sarasota-Manatee area residents to be prepared for landfall on the west coast.
One of the more popular models meteorologists use, projected a landfall around Naples at 2.30 a.m. Sunday morning and route through the middle of the state. If that proves to be the path, it could mean "potentially catastrophic damage" for this area, said SNN-TV Chief Meteorologist Justin Mosely.
"We have to wait until Saturday for the actual turn to occur, but we won't actually know until that turn actually does happen, so we're relying on model guidance right now to make predictions on that turn," Mosely said. "We're trying to get the message out that the west coast has to prepare for a storm just like the east coast, because we don't know where that turn (north) is going to happen."
The storm was traveling Thursday along the northern coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Meteorologists will have a more certain idea of where it will go by 8 a.m. Saturday morning, Mosely said, but noted that that does not give residents much time to prepare should the anticipated route change.
"The worst-case scenario for us would be if the center of the storm Category 4 strength tracks along our coast or just offshore, we'd have storm surge issues, flooding issues, we would have a tremendous amount of wind damage," Mosely said. "We should prepare for those threats, because we simply don't know where that center is going to go just yet."
A possible factor in Irma's shift west may be Hurricane Katia, which is spinning in the western Gulf of Mexico with winds at 80 mph. Weatherunderground's Jeff Masters said Katia could be having a "steering influence on Irma." But he cautioned residents from putting certainty into any one forecast.
"Predicting how two hurricanes interact is notoriously tricky," Masters said. "They are prone to doing things that we don't expect, so if one is influencing the other, they're both going to be unpredictable."
If the various computer models forecasters use remain in sync with a more westerly track by this afternoon, Masters said forecasters may have a probable guess at how the storm will travel. But he referenced the changing nature of 2004's Hurricane Charley, which ravaged Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte hours after meteorologists were certain the storm would make landfall near St. Petersburg.
"Right at the last hours, there's always going to be uncertainty," Masters said. "If you're in the cone of uncertainty, you're at risk for a direct strike."
Should the eye of the storm continue to travel on a path farther east, well away from the Gulf Coast, forecasters still cautioned that winds and rain would be felt across the state from the hurricane, which is expected to make landfall as a Category 5 storm.
The National Weather Service in Ruskin estimated a 65 percent chance for tropical storm force winds to arrive in Bradenton by 10 a.m. Sunday. However, uncertainties in the track could bring the winds 12 hours earlier. Less than two inches of rain were expected for this area.
But subtle changes in the track would make a difference, the weather service said of local impacts.
"Prepare for the uncertainty in the forecast. We've already seen a slight trend back west. Even a 30- 50-mile adjustment will result in large changes from the current forecast," the weather briefing Thursday night emphasized, adding that the "potential for tropical storm and hurricane force winds have increased due to the westward shift," and that "the longer Irma takes to take the northerly turn, the further west it will come ashore."
Preparing locally and statewide
Both Sarasota and Manatee counties were preparing to shelter evacuees.
Brookside Middle School in Sarasota County opened at 7 p.m. Thursday as part of a state initiative to shelter people evacuating from southeastern Florida. While Manatee County has designated four schools as shelters beginning 4 p.m. today, Sarasota County has yet to make the decision as to how many schools will serve as shelters and when they will open.
Sarasota Memorial Hospital activated its emergency preparedness plan and postponed all non-urgent elective surgeries planned for the weekend and Monday. The hospital's Urgent Care Centers will remain open today and Saturday, and decisions will be made later about openings Sunday and Monday.
Amid the preparations, Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, in a media briefing, urged people to remain calm and to "please be patient at the grocery store and the gas lines, and people trying to get sand for sandbags."
Thomas Iovino, communications director for the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, advised the public to make sure their prescription medications were in order and to stock up on groceries.
"You don't necessarily have to use bottled water," he said, noting that people could fill containers with water and also freeze them.
Forecasters issued a storm surge watch for parts of South Florida and the Florida Keys, indicating that there is a possibility of life-threatening inundation of rising water inland from the coastline in the next 48 hours.
Parts of southeastern Florida around Homestead and Biscayne Bay could see as much as between 3 to 6 feet of flooding above ground, according to a potential storm surge flooding map from the hurricane center.
AccuWeather's founder Joel N. Myers has called Irma the "single worst hurricane to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992," predicting that the hurricane's path will bring the most damage to the eastern side of the state, including Miami, West Palm Beach, Melbourne and Jacksonville. Tropical-storm-force winds may be felt in the Sarasota-Manatee area as early as Saturday evening.
In preparing for the hurricane, many Floridians have called to complain about price gouging and fuel shortages. The state's price-gouging hotline, 1-866-9-NO-SCAM, took more than 3,000 calls because of Irma as of Thursday morning.
"The worst call I got today, and this was the worst of the worst, was a 24 pack of six-ounce bottles of water, for $72 ... $72," said Martin Green, a call center operator. "That was in Jupiter today."
AccuWeather has estimated the potential damage of Hurricane Irma at $50 billion to $100 billion, which would make it one of the most damaging hurricanes in U.S. history after Katrina and Sandy. Some insurance companies are preparing for more than 100,000 claims, according to the president and CEO of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance.
Now that the storm's path is becoming more defined, federal forecasters say Irma will also likely impacts parts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
Besides Irma and Katia, a third hurricane, Jose, spun in the Atlantic and reached major storm status Thursday. A hurricane watch was issued for Antigua and Barbuda, both islands that were recently battered by Irma, and a hurricane warning has been issued for Cabo Rojo to Laguna Verde from Katia.
The storms in the Atlantic and Gulf come during the peak hurricane season, which falls between mid-August and mid-October.
Sept. 10 represents the statistical peak of hurricane season.
Staff Writers Zach Murdock, Brian Ries and Dale White contributed to this report, which includes material from the News Service of Florida
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