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Friday: Hurricane Irma threatens Tampa Bay, Florida Keys, west coast

Clearwater police open up a checkpoint on Sand Key on Friday morning restricting access to Clearwater Beach after mandatory evacuations were ordered because of Hurricane Irma. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Clearwater police open up a checkpoint on Sand Key on Friday morning restricting access to Clearwater Beach after mandatory evacuations were ordered because of Hurricane Irma. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Sept. 9, 2017

Hurricane Irma's latest shift west puts the Tampa Bay region and Florida's west coast in the path of the historically powerful storm, according to the 11 p.m. National Hurricane Center forecast.

A hurricane warning was issued for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, warning residents there that their areas will likely experience hurricane conditions within the next 48 hours.

Hernando and Pasco counties remained under a hurricane watch. But soon after the 11 p.m. update, Hernando officials ordered an evacuation of everyone living west of U.S. 19 to the coast.

A storm surge warning was also extended all the way to the Anclote River. The evacuation efforts that have already started will likely intensify across the bay area on Saturday.

LIVE BLOG: The latest on Hurricane Irma

Meanwhile Irma strengthened back into a Category 5 storm as it slammed into Cuba's Sabana-Camagüey archipelago with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph. The storm was moving at 13 mph.

"I can guarantee you that I don't know anyone in Florida that has ever experienced what's about to hit South Florida," Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said Friday, before the 11 p.m. forecast. "They need to get out."

Nearly 6 million Floridians — a quarter of the state's population — had already been told to evacuate before the 11 p.m. update.

So what does the latest forecast mean for the bay area? National Weather Service meteorologist Marc Austin said residents need to forget the spaghetti models and instead focus on the areas inside the forecast cone.

Those areas need to be ready for what could come next: storm surge in coastal areas, flooding in coastal, low-lying and flood-prone areas, and tropical storm and hurricane-force winds.

"It's going to be bad no matter what," Austin said.

That holds true for everything in Irma's path up the west coast, starting with the Florida Keys.

When the storm makes its long-awaited northwestern turn (which forecasters now believe won't start until Saturday night) it will take the storm and its dangerous eastern flank right across the Keys, which Austin said will face "extreme danger."

Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, has been continually shifting west from one coast of Florida to the other. But forecasters say Irma's path is growing more fixed the closer it draws toward the state.

"Generally the closer you get the more confidence you'll get in your forecast," Austin said. "But there's some wiggle room. It could go further west, it could go further east.

"That's why we tell people not to focus on the centerline. Focus on the cone. If you're in the cone, you're going to feel it. You've got to prepare. Our confidence is quite high that we'll see hurricane conditions in the Tampa Bay area."

Irma seems to be moving a bit slower, according to the latest forecast, delaying when the bay area will feel its impact by hours. Tropical-storm force winds are now forecast to start affecting the Tampa Bay region Sunday afternoon and then strengthen into hurricane-force winds that night.

The greatest period of concern locally will be as Sunday night turns into Monday morning. One aspect of the forecast that held steady is that while moving over land Irma could downgrade to a Category 2 storm by the time it reaches the bay area — so long as it stops moving west toward the warm waters of the gulf. Still, even at Category 2 strength it will remain a dangerous storm.

Aside from storm surge, low-lying and floor-prone areas will also be the threat of inland flooding. Irma will bring heavy bands of rain that will fuel that threat.

"Storm surge is the No. 1 killer with hurricanes," Austin said.

Earlier Friday, Gov. Rick Scott had told South Florida residents they had until midnight to get on the roads and safely find shelter, otherwise they risked being stuck in evacuation traffic as the storm approached.

Then after the 11 p.m. forecast, Scott issued a warning to residents in evacuation zones along the west coast in Charlotte, Collier, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties, telling them to leave by noon Saturday if they must travel far. After 12 p.m., Scott said they need to find the shelter closest to them.

"As we know, the direction of storms like Hurricane Irma can change in an instant, and the latest forecast track has put the storm heading directly up Florida's west coast," the governor said in a statement. "This storm is life-threatening and an imminent threat to our state. Not following evacuation orders could cost you your life.

"Evacuations are in place along the coast from Manatee County to Collier County and everyone must listen to their local officials and get out now. If you do not leave by noon (Saturday), you need to be prepared to get to the closest available shelter. Do not stay on the road — find the closest available shelter to your home and go there immediately. After noon (Saturday), it will not be safe for anyone in these coastal counties along the west coast to travel and it will not be safe for the law enforcement officers who will need to rescue you."

IRMA'S PATH TO FLORIDA

The 11 p.m. Friday forecast showed Irma had again reached Category 5 strength with sustained winds of 160 mph.

Irma has been moving toward the west near 13 mph, and a turn toward the northwest is expected by late Saturday. On the forecast track, the center of Irma will move near the north coast of Cuba through Saturday, near the Florida Keys Sunday morning and then near the southwest coast of Florida on Sunday afternoon.

Irma is expected to turn sharply north-northwestward and accelerate after 48 hours, moving parallel to the west coast of Florida and then into Georgia. The current forecast track has again shifted west, making it closer to Tampa Bay.

Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 70 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 185 miles.

[National Hurricane Center — Tap to enlarge]

HURRICANE GUIDE: Emergency information, tracking map and storm resources

EVACUATIONS: HERNANDO, PASCO, TAMPA ISSUE ORDERS

Pasco County extended its mandatory evacuation order for up to 120,000 residents, telling all who live west of U.S. 19 and an area north of Fox Hollow Drive and west of Little Road to seek shelter. That's on top of the 64,000 mobile or manufactured home occupants told to evacuate. The Wesley Chapel High School shelter is no longer accepting people. Call Pasco County at (727) 847-2411 to find the nearest shelter.

Hernando County officials extended a mandatory evacuation order to cover all residents living west of U.S. 19 in Zone C. An evacuation had already been ordered of up to 100,000 residents in Zones A and B, which includes coastal areas and all 11,700 mobile and manufactured homes.

Hillsborough County had already ordered a voluntary evacuation of Zone A on Thursday and a mandatory evacuation of special needs residents there. Tampa issued a mandatory evacuation order that included people in Zone A, high-rises, hotels, mobile homes, and those with special needs.

Pinellas County continued its mandatory evacuation for up to 160,000 in Zone A, those who live in low-lying areas and mobile and manufactured homes. When Zone B and C evacuations are announced, more shelters will open.

BERMUDA HIGH SYSTEM IS BRINGING STORM TOWARD TAMPA BAY

Blame the "Bermuda High" Tampa Bay residents troubled by a westerly shift in Irma's forecast track can point their fingers at the huge area of high pressure that usually hovers over Bermuda.

For days, forecasters have been calling for the storm to make a drastic northerly turn. But when? For Tampa Bay, the answer could mean the difference between tropical storm and hurricane force winds.

Earlier in the week, the track showed Irma making landfall near Miami and tracking along or just off the state's east coast. Now, models are coalescing around a forecast track that shows Irma turning later, making landfall closer to Naples, and the Bermuda high is why, said Stephen Shively, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

TAMPA ELECTRIC, DUKE ENERGY POISED TO RESTORE POWER OUTAGES

Tampa Bay might not sustain a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, but utilities agree: there will power outages. In anticipation of the storm, Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric are mobilizing workers and preparing their emergency responses to handle damages their coverage areas may sustain. Read more about how the power companies plan to handle outages here.

TAMPA INTERNATIONAL SHUTTING DOWN AND PUBLIX STORES CLOSING

If you haven't booked a flight out of Tampa International Airport yet to get away from Hurricane Irma, it's probably too late. The Tampa airport will cease all commercial airline operations on Saturday at 8 p.m. That means no flights will be taking off or landing at the airport.

Meanwhile, Publix stores in Tampa Bay will close Saturday night at 8 p.m. Stores are tentatively planned to reopen on Tuesday if weather permits.

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WHY FLORIDA'S HIGHWAYS WONT BE ROUTED ONE WAY FOR EVACUEES

As thousands of Floridians take to roadways to escape Hurricane Irmawhile there's still precious hours left to do so, one question keeps surfacing:

Why aren't state officials making the state's largest arteries — the Turnpike, Interstate 75 and Interstate 95 — one-way roads north so people can evacuate faster?

State officials say doing so would limit their ability to pre-position supplies before the storm hits and, as of Friday morning, they don't have any plans to reverse the flow of southbound traffic, a process they call "contraflow."

"We still need southbound lanes to get needed gas and supplies down to shelters and families that need it the southern parts of the state," Gov. Rick Scott said at a morning briefing in West Palm Beach. "Contraflow also inhibits our ability to get emergency vehicles to people that need them."

SOUTH FLORIDA EVACUATES

As South Florida fell under hurricane warnings, gas shortages and gridlock plagued thousands of people fleeing for high ground ahead of Irma.

More than a half-million people have been ordered to evacuate to escape the Category 4 hurricane tracking toward the state, and that volume turned normally simple trips into tests of will.

Carmen Pardo and her 6-year-old daughter, Valeria, drove around Miami for seven hours, gas station to gas station, frantically searching for somewhere to fill up the tank to evacuate. They found nothing, according to the Associated Press.

"She was saying, 'Mommy I'm so tired, I can't do this anymore,'" she said Thursday. "It was craziness."

Pardo booked the only flight she could find leaving the city, to Orlando, where she reserved two seats on a bus bound for Tallahassee on Friday.

"It's the beginning of an adventure," she said.

At least 31,000 people fled the Florida Keys, which could begin seeing wind and rain from Irma as early as Friday night.

CARIBBEAN DEVASTATION

The storm battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday as it continued a rampage through the Caribbean that has killed at least 11 people.

Waves as high as 20 feet are expected in the Turks and Caicos. Communications went down as the storm slammed into the islands, and the extent of the devastation was unclear.

Irma rolled past the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday and spun along the northern coast of Cuba on Friday morning. Thousands of tourists were evacuated from low-lying keys off the Cuban coast Thursday in anticipation of 20-foot storm surges. Buses loaded with tourists began streaming out of Santa Maria, Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and other keys dotted with all-inclusive resorts.

All residents of the area were under mandatory evacuation orders from the Cuban government, which was moving tens of thousands of people from vulnerable coastline.

French, British and Dutch military authorities rushed aid to a devastated string of Caribbean islands where at least 11 people were dead and thousands homeless. Warships and planes were sent with food, water and troops after the hurricane smashed homes, schools and roads, laying waste to some of the world's most beautiful and exclusive tourist destinations.

The first islands hit by the storm were scenes of terrible destruction.

LOOTING IN ST. MARTIN

France's government is reporting looting of televisions and other goods on the Caribbean island of St. Martin after it was hammered by Hurricane Irma, as warships and military planes ferry police and rescue crews to the site.

LIVE RADAR: Interactive storm track, hourly outlooks, 10-day forecasts and weather alerts

Annick Girardin, minister for France's overseas territories, described on BFM television Friday "scenes of pillaging" of televisions as well as food and water.

She lamented "how people can take advantage of the distress of others" and said it's essential for police to restore order and ensure urgent care for victims. The French government says four people are confirmed dead and about 50 injured on the French side of St. Martin. Another death was reported on the Dutch side of the shared island.

French military spokesman Col. Patrik Steiger told the Associated Press two French frigates are expected to arrive on St. Martin on Friday and military transport planes and helicopters are bringing in personnel and aid to the local population from the nearby French island of Guadeloupe.

This article includes reporting from the Associated Press.

This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.