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As Hurricane Irma shifts west, Tampa Bay area still at risk

Carlos Arguello spent Labor Day getting ready for Hurricane Irma. Here he ties $200 worth of plywood on his car outside the Home Depot at 2300 22nd Ave. N on Monday. Arguello said he had been following the devastation in Texas and wanted to be prepared to board up his Lealman home if  "history repeats itself here" with Irma. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]
Carlos Arguello spent Labor Day getting ready for Hurricane Irma. Here he ties $200 worth of plywood on his car outside the Home Depot at 2300 22nd Ave. N on Monday. Arguello said he had been following the devastation in Texas and wanted to be prepared to board up his Lealman home if "history repeats itself here" with Irma. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published Sep. 7, 2017

Tampa Bay isn't out of the woods yet.

As Category 5 Hurricane Irma's track wobbles, experts say there is still a slight chance one of the most dangerous storms in years could scoot closer to Florida's west coast.

And no matter the track, which could still change over the next few days, the area will likely experience strong winds from the massive storm. A Thursday afternoon forecast from the National Hurricane Center showed that Irma shifted westward slightly.

"I would certainly not want to say people in Tampa should just go about their business and not pay attention to the storm," said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist and hurricane forecaster for Colorado State University. "People throughout the state of Florida should be paying attention to it."

MORE COVERAGE: Hurricane watch issued for parts of Florida as Irma maintains course.

There are several tracks Irma could take, some better and some worse for the west coast.

There's about a 40 percent chance the storm could descend on southeast Florida then head to the Georgia-South Carolina boarder, said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground. A scenario with the same probability could send the storm east of Florida and straight toward Charleston, S.C.

A track that would be best for the whole state but with a much lower probability — about 10 percent — shows the storm bypassing Florida completely and heading to North Carolina.

And here's the worst case scenario for Tampa Bay: if the storm continued west through the Florida Keys, then turned north and plowed into the Naples area. On that track, which has only a 10 percent shot, Irma would continue along the spine of Florida, Masters said.

"You guys would be on the weaker side of the storm," he said, "but it's such a powerful storm you would still get Category 1 hurricane-force winds."

With the National Hurricane Center's most recent track, there's only about an 8 percent chance the Tampa Bay area will see hurricane-force winds and about a 1 percent chance those winds would be Category 3 or higher, Masters said.

Tropical storm-level winds have a much higher chance, at about 40 percent. That risk of strong winds and storm surge led Pinellas County officials to order a mandatory evacuation for Zone A, which affects about 160,000 residents who live in low-lying coastal areas and mobile homes.

READ MORE: Pinellas orders mandatory evacuations for mobile home, Level A residents.

The steering forces of the storm are the Bermuda High, a semi-permanent high-pressure system over the Atlantic Ocean in the summer time, and a weak trough of low pressure moving over the east coast from the midwest.

The trough is what will drive the storm north, Klotzbach said, so the track ultimately depends on when Irma will reach the edge of the area of high pressure.

"That's going to be the big question is how that all interacts," he said.

Masters and Klotzbach recommended all Floridians keep an eye on the "cone of uncertainty," or the path showing where the storm could make direct landfall. A recent cone shows Irma scraping up the east coast in a path similar to last year's Hurricane Matthew, and one that would be devastating from a cyclone with hurricane-force winds extending 50 miles from the eye, Klotzbach said.

"Until that cone narrows down," he said, "I would encourage everyone to take precautions."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.