Updated at 8:05 p.m.
The catastrophic Category 5 Hurricane Irma continues to batter the Caribbean and head towards South Florida and Miami-Dade County has issued voluntary evacuation orders for the City of Miami Beach and Zones A and B (you can find your zones here).
According to the National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Irma's eye passed over the northernmost Virgin Islands this afternoon and hurricane watches could be issued in the Florida Keys and the mainland as soon as Thursday.
From a Miami-Dade County statement:
For a safer and more comfortable location during the storm, the city recommends residents find shelter with family and friends on the mainland. Taking into consideration the high volume of residents and additional low-lying areas evacuating, traffic congestion is expected. Miami-Dade County is expected to open evacuation shelters soon for those who are unable to make necessary accommodations. A list of evacuation centers can be found here. The City of Miami Beach continues to follow Miami-Dade County’s direction in regards to evacuation procedures and updates.
"I can not stress this enough. Get prepared, know your evacuation zone, listen to your locals. And you have to take this seriously. Remember we can rebuild your home, we can not rebuild your life," said Gov. Rick Scott at a press conference in Doral Wednesday afternoon. "This is a life-threatening storm, protecting life is an absolute top priority."
With wind speeds up to 185 mph, Irma has become the most powerful hurricane on record in the Atlantic Ocean, not including the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico.
The forecast continues to show the storm's path tracking up the east coast of Florida — rather than through the center or Gulf Coast, as in earlier projections. A big concern is the next island west: Puerto Rico. Irma’s eye is forecast to pass off the north coast and the capital of San Juan Wednesday evening. But Puerto Ricans like Gustavo Meza, an IT official for San Juan’s government, say fears are high nonetheless.
“This hurricane is very, very dangerous," Meza said. "Even if its center passes away from us, its diameter is really big and we'll feel its impact. This is the first time in the life of Puerto Rico that a hurricane is Category 5-plus.”
A hurricane warning is in effect in Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra, the U.S. and the British Virgin Islands, Central and Southeastern Bahamas and the Turk and Caicos islands, as well as the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engaño to the northern border with Haiti and Guadeloupe.
A warning is also in effect for parts of Haiti (from the northern border with the Dominican Republic to Le Mole St. Nicholas).
A tropical storm warning is in effect for Cuba for the provinces of Guantanamo, Holguin and Las Tunas. There is a hurricane watch in Cuba from Matanzas to Guantanamo.
Unfortunately, the forecast isn't looking good for Florida.
The National Hurricane Center urged all Floridians to make plans, stock up on supplies and be familiar with evacuation zones, as mandatory evacuation started this morning in the Florida Keys.
Also on Tuesday evening in preparation for the eventual arrival of Hurricane Irma, President Donald Trump signed an emergency declaration for the 67 Florida counties. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deploy to the field.
Justo Hernández has been named as the Federal Coordinating Officer for federal response operations in Florida, according to a release from the agency.
Considerable uncertainty abounds in the eventual track Irma might take as it relates to Florida. Meteorologist Jeff Huffman has predicted three possible outcomes:
Outcome A: Hurricane Irma has been steered west (and even west-southwest) by a strong ridge of high pressure. Forecast models have been adjusting to this more westward track for several days, making it entirely plausible that Irma will be heavily influenced by the mountains of both Hispaniola and Cuba before making a turn to the north. It’s also possible that Irma would spend more time over warm water in the Gulf of Mexico before possibly approaching Florida’s west coast or the panhandle.
Outcome B: A much sharper and sooner turn to the north is seen by several reliable long range forecast models that would place much of south and southeast Florida in the cross hairs of Irma. The storm would then generally parallel the coast, either inland or just offshore, and affect a large section of Florida’s Atlantic Coast on its way to Georgia or the Carolinas. Based on Monday’s forecast data, this is the most likely scenario and could result in millions of Floridians being told to evacuate by Friday.
Outcome C: While this is the least likely scenario, it’s certainly the one that would be the best news for Florida. Hurricane Irma may drift far enough to the north to make use of an opening in the steering currents that would allow the storm to turn away from the U.S. much sooner. If this were to occur, most of Florida would be spared significant wind or surge hazards. However, the heavy rain, tornado and coastal flooding problems would likely extend up the entire eastern seaboard.
Hurricane hunter aircraft are making routine flights into Major Hurricane Irma multiple times a day to obtain more forensics on the storm. And as each day passes, the forecast situation as it relates to Florida will become much clearer. Regardless of where you live in the state, stocking up on supplies and making a hurricane plan are a good idea. Floridians who live near the coast in south or central Florida should be prepared to put that plan in place by Wednesday.
Information from NPR and the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network was used in this report.