AP Science Writer
The National Hurricane Center says it's looking more likely that the eye of powerful Hurricane Irma will strike the Keys, southwestern Florida and the Tampa Bay region starting Sunday. But that doesn't mean Miami area is in the clear. It's not.
The western part of the state will most likely get the worst of Irma. And even though Irma weakened when it raked the Cuban coast and islands, it's expected to get its strength back over the ultra-toasty Florida Straits and hit the Sunshine State as a dangerous Category 4 storm.
Look for Irma to hit the lower Florida Keys on Sunday morning, the southwest coast of Florida on Sunday afternoon and the Tampa region on Sunday night into Monday morning, said National Hurricane Center spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen.
The core of Irma "will go over the Lower Keys and the southwest coast, but not over Southeast Florida," said Feltgen, who is based in Miami. "But that doesn't mean we won't have 20 inches of rain, storm surge. ... We're going to have a hurricane here." That includes high winds, just not as high as what the west coast of the state will experience.
Feltgen said he worries that people will misinterpret the forecast track change that puts Miami out of predicted area for Irma's eye. Irma is so large that even if the eye is to the west, Southeast Florida will get dangerous winds and water.
The Tampa region looks likely to get a direct hit, although that could still change, Feltgen said Saturday.
For decades disaster officials and meteorologists have put the Tampa region as one of their worst-case scenarios, along with Miami, New Orleans, Houston and New York. The other four cities have been hit in the last 25 years but Tampa has not been hit by a major hurricane since 1921 when its population was about 10,000, Feltgen said. Now it has around 3 million people.
"It's certainly one of those metropolitan areas where we have one of the greatest concerns, particularly with storm surge, particularly with inexperience," Feltgen said.
The hurricane center forecasts 8 to 12 feet (2.4 to 3.7 meters) of storm surge in extreme southwestern Florida, an area that includes Naples. Experts say the area from Venice to Captiva Island will get about 5 to 8 feet (1.5 to 2.4 meters), with the Tampa Bay region getting about 3 to 5 feet (-0.9 to 1.5 meters) further north. Southeast Florida up to Boca Raton can expect 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters) of storm surge, with areas further north on the east coast of Florida forecast to get 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters) of storm surge.
High wind, tornadoes and heavy rainfall of up to 20 inches (0.5 meters) are forecast for most of Florida.
Overall, it will likely be less costly if Irma hits the west rather than east coast because the east coast has more people and more buildings, said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
But with hurricane-force winds that can stretch 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide, all of Florida can be under Irma at any given time, McNoldy said.
The reason forecasters keep pushing Irma's projected path west lies hundreds of miles to the north. A high-pressure system keeps Irma moving west, but forecasters keep expecting it to weaken when a low-pressure system builds over the Great Lakes. When the low pressure builds and the high pressure weakens, Irma is expected to turn right and into Florida. The later the low pressure builds and the high pressure weakens, the later and further west the right turn is. This weather pattern is taking longer to kick in than forecasters expected.
Irma is likely to remain a hurricane as it continues to chug up through Florida perhaps to the Georgia line, Feltgen said. Georgia will at least get tropical-storm-force winds.
It's a few days out and it can still change, but forecasters worry that the remnants of Irma will stall out in the Tennessee Valley and bring lots of rain and potential flooding.
If the forecast track doesn't change — it is likely to shift — the Nashville area will end up getting the remnants of both Harvey and Irma.