Irma spun into a monster storm Tuesday morning with sustained winds topping 180 mph, becoming the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded outside the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, National Hurricane Center forecasters said in their 11 a.m. advisory.
As the hurricane churns closer to the U.S. coast, its path becomes more certain, with South Florida, particularly the Keys, increasingly likely to take a hit. Tropical storm force winds could arrive as early as Friday. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for all 67 counties and has all 7,000 members of the state’s National Guard to report to duty on Friday.
Because Irma is so large, forecasters urged caution in paying too much attention to its exact track. The storm is continuing to roll west at 14 mph, with winds expected to begin battering the Leeward Islands today. A powerful high pressure ridge is steering the storm and will likely stay in place over the next few days, forecasters said. In five days, a trough moving across the U.S. should begin weakening the western edge of the ridge, allowing the storm to slide north. Where Irma makes the turn will determine impacts to Florida.
Monroe County announced that it will begin issuing mandatory evacuation orders for visitors at sunrise Wednesday. Residents will also be ordered to leave, although no time has yet been determined, county officials said. Schools and county offices will also be closed, beginning Wednesday.