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Hurricane Irma set records, but 'we got super lucky'

Before crashing into Florida, Hurricane Irma set all sorts of records for brute strength as it flattened Caribbean islands and swamped the Florida Keys. Irma's assault — so soon after Harvey's deluge of Houston — marked the first time the United States was hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year.

Irma hit the Sunshine State as a big wide beast, though not quite the monster it once was shaping up to be. Earlier, it was the most powerful recorded storm in the open Atlantic. But as the once-Category 5 storm neared the U.S. mainland, it lost some oomph after running into the northern coast of Cuba.

Winds dropped to a quite potent 115 mph by the time Irma made landfall on Marco Island, on the Florida peninsula, still a major and dangerous hurricane yet not near its 185 mph former self when it set a record Tuesday for the most powerful storm in the open Atlantic. And on top of that, Irma avoided what could have been its most destructive paths along the Florida peninsula — over Miami and the heavily developed Atlantic seaboard. Still, at about 400 miles wide, it raked much of the state with devastating storm surge, destructive winds and drenching rains.

"There's a huge difference between a (Category) 3 and 5 when it makes landfall," said private meteorologist Ryan Maue of WeatherBell Analytics. "Barbudo is an example of that. It was wiped."

"This is obviously not the worst case scenario for Florida overall," Maue said. Had the center of Irma hit Florida 20 to 30 miles to the east "it would have been much worse."

Florida can thank Cuba, where it did hit as a Category 5 storm, said Maue and Jeff Masters, meteorology director for Weather Underground.

"We got super lucky that this storm didn't go 20 miles north of Cuba over the weekend instead of going over the coast of Cuba because this would have been a Category 5 hurricane," Masters told the Associated Press.

Irma set plenty of records, according to a two-page list compiled by Colorado State University researcher Phil Klotzbach:

• Its 185 mph winds were the highest on record for the open Atlantic ocean, outside the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean sea. Only one other storm in the entire Atlantic basin — 1980's Allen — was stronger.

• It spent three consecutive days as a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane, the longest in the satellite era.

• It generated the second most Accumulated Cyclone Energy — a key measurement that combines strength and duration — in the satellite era.

• It was the strongest storm to hit the Leeward Islands.

• It's the first Category 5 hurricane to hit Cuba, which regularly gets assaulted by hurricanes, in nearly 100 years.

"This storm is the real deal," Klotzbach said.

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