Wielding the most powerful winds ever recorded for a storm in the Atlantic Ocean, Hurricane Irma bore down Tuesday on the Leeward Islands of the northeast Caribbean on a forecast path that could take it toward Florida over the weekend.
Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday suspended all tolls in Florida, a sign that the state is preparing for the worst as Irma strengthened into a Category 5 storm with wind speeds now up to 185 mph.
The storm posed an immediate threat to the small islands of the northern Leewards, including Antigua and Barbuda, as well as the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
"The Leeward Islands are going to get destroyed," warned Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach, a noted hurricane expert. "I just pray that this thing wobbles and misses them. This is a serious storm."
A hurricane warning remains in effect for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, parts of the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean locations as Florida officials rapidly accelerated their preparations.
As of Tuesday at 5 p.m., Irma was located about 130 miles east of Antigua and is moving west at 15 mph.
A turn toward the west-northwest is forecast to begin tonight and continue for the next couple of days.
Maximum sustained winds are near 185 mph with higher gusts. Some fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Irma is forecast to remain a powerful category 4 or 5 hurricane during the next couple of days.
Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 60 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 175 miles.
From 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Irma went from a 150-mph Category 4 to a 185-mph Category 5, with higher gusts.
Four other storms have had winds that strong in the overall Atlantic region, but they have been in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico where the usually warmer waters fuel tropical cyclones.
Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980, while 2005's Wilma, 1988's Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Key storm all had 185 mph winds.
Experts say Irma's strength is a result of unusually warm water for that part of the Atlantic.
"Hurricane Irma is a major and life-threatening storm and Florida must be prepared," Scott said in a statement on Monday. "In Florida, we always prepare for the worst and hope for the best and while the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared."
[National Hurricane Center]
Forecasters say hurricane conditions will arrive in the warning areas by Tuesday night, and Irma could produce up to 15 inches of rain across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and the northern Leeward Islands.
The Leeward Islands could experience tides between 7 and 11 feet above normal, as well as life-threatening flash floods and mud slides.
WHERE THE STORM IS HEADED
The core of Irma will move over portions of the northern Leeward Islands tonight and early Wednesday, move near or over portions of the northern Virgin Islands Wednesday, and pass near or just north of Puerto Rico late Wednesday and Wednesday night.
"Puerto Rico has not seen a hurricane of this magnitude in almost 100 years," Carlos Anselmi, a National Weather Service meteorologist in San Juan, told the Associated Press.
Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 12 inches (31 centimeters) of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet (7 meters). Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalize all preparations as store shelves emptied out on islands including Puerto Rico.
"The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. "This is an extremely dangerous storm."
EVACUATIONS AND CLOSINGS UNDER WAY
In Florida, residents also stocked up on drinking water and other supplies.
Gov. Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 National Guard members were to report to duty Friday when the storm could be approaching the area. On Monday, Scott declared a state of emergency in all of Florida's 67 counties.
Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma's path, and the mayor of Miami-Dade county said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most of the county's coastal areas.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days' worth of food and water.
TROPICAL STORM JOSE FORMS IN ATLANTIC
Trailing behind is Tropical Storm Jose, which formed at 11 a.m. in the Atlantic. The storm is 1,505 miles east of the Lesser Antilles and has maximum sustained winds of 40 mph as it moves west-northwest at 13 mph. It is expected to become a hurricane by Friday.
POTENTIAL IMPACT ON FLORIDA, TAMPA BAY
Hurricane Irma's intensity will fluctuate during the next day or two but it is still expected to remain a powerful Category 4 or 5 hurricane during the next couple of days, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane-force winds extend as far out as 60 miles from the storm's center and tropical-storm-force winds reach out about 175 miles.
On its current track, Irma's center will move over portions of the northern Leeward Islands on Tuesday night into early Wednesday before passing to the north of the Dominican Republic and Cuba. It could be near the southern tip of Florida by Sunday morning beginning its expected northerly turn, 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Grant Gilmore said.
"There is some uncertainty as to when and where that turn to the north will occur," Gilmore said.
On its current track, the Tampa Bay area has a 21 percent chance of experiencing tropical storm force winds by Sunday morning.
Forecasters said there was a growing possibility that the storm's effects could be felt in Florida later this week and over the weekend, though it was still too early to be sure of its future track.
If it stays on track and reaches the Florida Straits, the water there is warm enough that the already "intense" storm could become much worse with wind speeds potentially reaching 225 mph, warned Kerry Emanuel, an MIT meteorology professor.
"People who are living there (the Florida Keys) or have property there are very scared, and they should be," Emanuel said.
This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.