Hurricane Irma became one of the most powerful storms to ever roar out of the Atlantic Ocean on Tuesday, growing into a Category 5 hurricane with wind speeds up to 185 mph as it bore down on the continental U.S.
Florida seemed certain to feel the wrath of Irma, which the National Hurricane Center said had grown into an "extremely dangerous" storm traveling west at 15 mph. Yet state residents were wracked with uncertainty about where and when those effects will be felt. Forecasters will have a better idea after the storm takes an expected turn northward.
Meanwhile, as the Tampa Bay region entered the five-day cone, residents geared up for whatever is to come.
Robbie Mead, 27, stood outside a St. Petersburg Home Depot gathering supplies. Born and raised in Florida, seeing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey convinced him to take this storm seriously. But Irma has him asking: Should he stay or should he go?
"I don't want to lose everything I own," he said. "I'm just trying to figure out if we have to get out of here."
He wondered — half joking, half serious — how much stronger could it get: "They going to make a Category 6?"
President Donald Trump on Tuesday declared a pre-landfall state of emergency for Florida, allowing federal emergency officials to start mobilizing. Gov. Rick Scott suspended all tolls and ordered all 7,000 National Guard members to report to duty Friday.
Official preparations were the most intense in South Florida. Monroe County officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of the Florida Keys and the mayor of Miami-Dade County said residents of Miami Beach and the coast should get ready to leave themselves.
"We're emphatically telling people you must evacuate, you cannot afford to stay on an island with a Category 5 hurricane coming at you," Monroe County Emergency Operations Center Director Martin Senterfitt told WFOR-TV Ch. 4, the CBS affiliate in Miami.
How does Hurricane Irma compare to Harvey?
Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on southeast Texas, a record-setting amount for a single tropical system, causing deadly flooding. It did that because it stalled over Texas for days, pelting the area with constant precipitation. But Harvey was otherwise not terrifically remarkable, meteorologically. Hurricane-force winds only extended out 20 miles from the center when it hit.
"If Harvey had made landfall and gone on like a well-behaved hurricane," said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach, it wouldn't have caused nearly the devastation.
This storm, Klotzbach said, won't sit on top of us. Instead, Irma's damage will come from wind and storm surge. It's already one of the strongest hurricanes ever in the Atlantic Ocean and it's far larger than Harvey. Hurricane winds extend 50 miles from the center, Klotzbach said.
"Irma is a whole other beast," he said. "She's angry."
What's Irma's track?
Once it wreaks havoc over the Leeward Islands, government models predict the center of the storm will shoot the gap between Cuba and the Bahamas and end up near Florida's southern tip. From there, it's unclear what happens next. Most of the models show the storm making landfall somewhere near South Florida, though whether it goes up the state's east or west coast or right up the spine is where the models begin to differ.
If the storm does indeed come our way, when will officials issue evacuation orders?
Pinellas County, virtually surrounded by water, is the most vulnerable county in the Tampa Bay area to hurricanes. Officials there said they would call for an evacuation roughly 28 hours before the storm threatens the county, meaning those orders could come as early as late this week or during the weekend.
Where should I go?
Those who evacuate only need to go tens of miles, said Pinellas County spokeswoman Libby Bolling. The effects of the storm can vary widely from one spot to the next. So, for example, she said, beach residents can likely safely stay with friends or family in Brandon.
Also, evacuees should monitor the storm until it's out of the area. A shifty storm could turn at the last second and affect another area in the state. Think Hurricane Charley in 2004, which initially threatened Tampa Bay before a late turn toward Punta Gorda to the south. Many bay-area residents made a beeline for Orlando only to be hit there.
County shelters should be a last resort, Bolling said.
How do I know if I should evacuate?
Check your county's flood zone maps, which you can find at the Tampa Bay Times' Hurricane Preparedness Guide. Learn which flood zone you're in. Monitor local news broadcasts or county government web sites and social media for evacuation orders by zone.
Are sandbags available?
Sandbags are being distributed across the Tampa Bay area. To find sandbags near you, see To find sandbags near you, see our list here.
How can I secure my home before I leave?
Take pictures of everything you have in case you need to file an insurance claim later. Bring important papers with you and any valuables you can take. Consider shutting your power off, Bolling said. And board your windows or put up your shutters.
What should I buy?
Refill your prescriptions, get gas and cash, Bolling said. And buy enough water and food to last you and your family three days, Scott warned, in case the you need to hunker down.
"Once this hits, it's very difficult to provide resources until after it's passed," he said Tuesday.
The governor also suspended weight restrictions on roads so truckers could get supplies into the state before and after the storm.
Times staff writer Divya Kumar contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @josh_solomon15.