(TNS) - As thousands of cars streamed north on Florida's roads Wednesday, carrying residents fleeing the approach of Hurricane Irma, the Category 5 storm maintained its powerful 185 mph winds on a path towards the Bahamas today and eventually, forecasters predict, a landfall Sunday afternoon on the state's southeast coast.
The latest projected track from National Hurricane Center forecasters Wednesday night had shifted east from earlier predictions on where the storm would go, based on conclusions that the system will eventually shift course from its present west-northwest trajectory and head north, along or just off Florida's east coast. However, experts underscored that the entire Florida peninsula remained within Irma's potential path, and noted that the margin of error for predictions this far out ranged from 175 to 225 miles. A shift either east or west would have dramatically different results for Florida residents, including those in Southwest Florida.
As a result, many local governments ramped up their emergency preparations, while schools set plans to close on Friday and canceled activities. Highways, gas stations and stores saw firsthand how seriously residents were taking officials' warnings. Meanwhile, mandatory evacuations began in southeast Florida.
"Remember, we can rebuild your home, but we can not rebuild your life," Gov. Rick Scott said at a press conference Wednesday in urging residents to exercise caution and heed warnings.
Scott said Irma could be bigger than Hurricane Andrew, a devastating Category 5 hurricane that 25 years ago raced across South Florida with 165 mph winds, destroying more than 63,500 homes, leaving $26.5 billion in damages and 65 people dead.
"Here's what we didn't have in Andrew: We didn't have this amount of wind; Andrew was not as big as this is," Scott said. "This is 185 mph winds and they're tracking it even higher than that at some times."
Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 50 miles from Irma's center and tropical-storm-force winds extended outward up to 185 miles. Officials had not grasped the damage caused on the islands Irma hit Wednesday, including Barbuda, while the system churned toward Puerto Rico.
Forecasters say Irma will move through the Bahamas and toward Cuba before making a northward turn. After affecting Florida this weekend, Irma is expected to continue north toward the U.S. Southeast coast.
Even if the storm remains along the east coast, this area could still see strong tropical storm force winds, and heavy rains, though accumulation would not be as much as if the system moved west.
The threat prompted local institutions to prepare for the effects. Ringling College of Art and Design closed its campus and told students to evacuate. State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota closed its campus from today through Monday, and closed the State College of Florida Collegiate School. University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and New College also canceled classes through Monday.
Manatee County declared a local state of emergency Wednesday morning, with officials saying they needed to be prepared to evacuate as many as 100,000 residents beginning Friday morning. Sarasota County also declared a local state of emergency, but told residents that if the current track continues the area will likely only see 3.5 inches of rain. City leaders in Venice and North Port made similar declarations, with Venice saying city offices would close Friday.
North Port city employees were working on storm preparation. City Manager Peter Lear said the state of emergency would help him procure items needed to ensure the health, safety and welfare of North Port residents, with respect to Irma.
"It allows us to get what we need in as fast a manner," Lear said, adding that he won't be forced to price-shop. "In a situation like this, price is not the number one priority."
All five city commissioners urged residents to keep calm and help their neighbors during post-storm cleanup.
North Port Fire Chief Bill Taaffe stressed that even if Irma continues to veer right, the city could experience flooding both from tropical storm level rainfall, and possible backup in the Myakka River because of storm surge.
Taaffe noted that the water level in the Myakkahatchee Creek was already down to 19 feet, from a high of 22.5 feet — though he'd prefer it be closer to 18 feet.
Manatee County Public Safety Department Director Bob Smith said the county may have to start evacuating 50,000 residents in the coastal Level A evacuation zone plus another 40,000 in mobile home parks.
Smith said county officials will coordinate with public school officials as to if and when shelters will be opened. The evacuation could take 10 to 17 hours, Smith said.
Emergency management officials will encourage residents to leave the area if possible and "use public shelters only as a last resort," Smith said.
Smith said preparations depend on "a little more certainty from the National Hurricane Center."
Sarasota and Manatee County school districts both opted to close school on Friday. They did not announce how closures will be handled for next week.
"We're going to see these rains probably in the normal pattern we've been seeing lately, but it shouldn't be anything that'll be creating additional flooding concerns," said Sarasota County's emergency management director Ed McCrane at a press conference. "That's good news, but things can change."
Although meteorologists have urged Florida residents to follow the track, as it could change, Weatherunderground's Jeff Masters says that is now looking less and less likely, since various computer models of the storm's future were in agreement.
"The odds of getting a west coast-tracking hurricane are somewhere around the 10 percent likelihood," Masters said. "Miami is in its sights and Sarasota is not."
Masters said the Sarasota-Manatee area will probably see tropical-storm-force winds beginning Saturday evening and could see two to three feet of storm surge Sunday evening, when winds will begin coming from the west or northwest off the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters expect the storm to weaken marginally, to a Category 4 hurricane with winds between 130 and 140 mph.
Irma is not the only storm chugging through the Atlantic. Close behind it is Hurricane Jose, the 10th named storm of the season. Jose was expected to be east of the Bahamas by early Monday, about the same time Irma is predicted to land in south Florida.
A third hurricane, Katia, is in the Gulf of Mexico, and was forecast to turn southwest.
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This report includes material from the News Service of Florida.
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