Floridians were still on hinge Thursday as they waited to see how sharp of a turn monster storm Irma would take on its current track toward the peninsula.
Parts of Florida are already under evacuation orders and have been given an official hurricane watch from the National Hurricane Center.
As evidenced by projections that moved Irma from Florida's east coast to closer to the middle of the state, Tampa Bay and the rest of the Gulf Coast still aren't in the clear. Exactly which parts of Florida will be the most impacted by the storm that's already devastated the northern Caribbean is still hard to say. The entire state will, however, feel Irma's wrath, officials warn.
The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch and storm surge watch from the Jupiter Inlet southward and around the peninsula to Anna Maria Island, including the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.
Those areas of the state have already been told to evacuate ahead of Irma's destructive path as the Atlantic Ocean's most potent hurricane ever.
Irma weakened a bit on Thursday, still remaining a powerful Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 165 mph, according to the hurricane center. As of 11 p.m., Irma was about 585 miles east-southeast of Miami and moving west-northwest at 16 mph.
Irma's eye was moving away from the Turks and Caicos Islands and toward the southeastern Bahamas late Thursday. The core will then move between the north coast of Cuba and the Bahamas during the next day or two.
Forecast models showed the hurricane tracking closer to the middle of the state, then swerving east as it moved north.
Forecasters said Thursday the storm will likely remain a Category 4 or 5 for the next two days.
It's then Irma will likely head north toward Florida.
AHEAD OF STORM, FLORIDIANS PACK HIGHWAYS
At a morning press conference from Hialeah Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott said the Florida Department of Transportation is already seeing bottlenecks across the state's major highways. He told citizens to head to their county's shelters.
"You don't need to evacuate out of the state or hundreds of miles to stay safe," he said.
The governor has waived tolls across the state to help ease some of the traffic woes.
Scott said Florida is already working with Google to ensure Google Maps is kept up to date about any road closures because of Irma.
FORECAST FOR FLORIDA, EAST COAST
The storm is expected to hit Florida sometime Sunday and Gov. Rick Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard soldiers by Friday. He warned that Irma is "bigger, faster and stronger" than Hurricane Andrew, which wiped out entire neighborhoods in south Florida 25 years ago.
Experts worried Thursday that Irma could rake the entire Florida east coast from Miami to Jacksonville and then head into Savannah, Georgia, and the Carolinas, striking highly populated and developed areas.
"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 McNold, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami told the Associated Press.
So far, Broward County has issued voluntary evacuations of mobile homes and low-lying areas beginning Thursday morning. Collier County has issued voluntary evacuations of Marco Island, which began Wednesday. Miami-Dade County has issued mandatory evacuations in its lowest-lying areas.
IMPACT ON PUERTO RICO
Irma blacked out much of Puerto Rico, slamming the U.S. territory with heavy wind and rain while staying just out to sea.
To the east, authorities struggled to get aid to small Caribbean islands devastated by the storm's record winds earlier Wednesday.
Communications with the northern Caribbean communities already hit by Irma has only tickled out:
More than half the island of Puerto Rico was without power, leaving 900,000 in the dark and nearly 50,000 without water, the U.S. territory's emergency management agency said in the midst of the storm. Fourteen hospitals were using generators after losing power, and fallen trees and light poles covered the roads.
Puerto Rico's public power company warned before the storm hit that some areas could be left without power from four to six months because its staff has been reduced and its infrastructure weakened by the island's decade-long economic slump.
State maintenance worker Juan Tosado said he was without power for three months after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
"I expect the same from this storm. It's going to be bad," he told the AP.
The NHC said in its Thursday morning report water levels around Puetro Rico should subside throughout the day.
DAMAGE ACROSS BARBUDA
Nearly every building on Barbuda was damaged when the hurricane's core crossed almost directly over the island early Wednesday and about 60 percent of its roughly 1,400 residents were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told the AP.
"It is just really a horrendous situation," Browne said after returning to Antigua from a plane trip to the neighboring island.
He said roads and telecommunications systems were wrecked and recovery would take months, if not years. A 2-year-old child was killed as a family tried to escape a damaged home during the storm.
ELSEWHERE IN THE CARIBBEAN
On St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Laura Strickling spent 12 hours hunkered down with her husband and 1-year-old daughter in a boarded-up basement apartment with no power as the storm raged outside. They emerged to find the lush island in tatters. Many of their neighbors' homes were damaged and once-dense vegetation was largely gone.
"There are no leaves. It is crazy. One of the things we loved about St. Thomas is that it was so green. And it's gone," Strickling said. "It will take years for this community to get back on its feet."
Significant damage was also reported on St. Martin, an island split between French and Dutch control. Photos and video circulating on social media showed major damage to the airport in Philipsburg and the coastal village of Marigot heavily flooded. France sent emergency food and water there and to the French island of St. Bart's, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out electricity.
President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.
Pauline Jackson, a 59-year-old registered nurse from Florida visiting Puerto Rico, the AP she had tried to leave before the storm but all flights were sold out.
She has a reservation to fly out Friday and is worried about her home in Tampa. "When you're from Florida, you understand a Category 5 hurricane," she said.
EMERGENCY DECLARATIONS IN CAROLINAS, GEORGIA
Shifting forecasts raised the threat to the Southeast from fierce Hurricane Irma and prompted emergency declarations in the Carolinas and coastal Georgia, including areas that haven't suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane in more than a century.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency Wednesday for the state's 100-mile (160-kilometer) swath of Atlantic coast, which was last struck by a hurricane of force Category 3 or higher in 1898. His South Carolina counterpart, Gov. Henry McMaster, declared an emergency for that neighboring state as officials assessed the chances of receiving a major hurricane strike there for the first time in nearly 28 years.
"It is a precaution. This is not an order of evacuation," McMaster said in Columbia, South Carolina's capital, adding evacuations could be ordered as early as Friday — if needed. "Assume it's arriving tomorrow morning and get ready. When that hurricane is coming, when it gets close, it's too late."
The last major hurricane to hit South Carolina was Hugo in September 1989. It slammed ashore just north of Charleston with winds of 135 mph (215 kph), causing 13 deaths in the state and $6.5 billion in damage in 1989 dollars.
Also, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency taking effect at 8 a.m. Thursday for the entire state. He added that all swift-water rescue teams the state had sent to Texas for Hurricane Harvey were expected back in North Carolina by Wednesday night.