HURRICANE TRACKER: Irma, a Cat 2 hurricane, weakens to 100 mph winds

Updated:

The latest on Irma from Severe Weather Center 9: 

Irma made landfall around 9:10 a.m. Sunday along Cudjoe Key in Florida (east of Key West) as a category 4 storm with winds of 130 mph.

The National Hurricane Center said a weakened, but still powerful, Irma is fully on land in Florida as a Category 2 storm with top winds at 100 mph.

Irma is 50 miles southeast of Tampa Myers and moving north at 14 mph.

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Irma's winds dropped to 100 mph, down from 130 mph, and forecasters say it should weaken a bit more. But it still expected to a strong major hurricane as it rakes Florida from its western edges across to the east.

At 11 p.m., the latest track continues to indicate that Irma will turn northwest toward Western Georgia on Monday.

However, we have yet to see this turn happen and if it does not, the Charlotte impacts will be greater.

The hurricane continues to wreak havoc across South Florida with high wind and surge, forecasters say. 

Forecasts have called for life-threatening storm surge of up to 15 feet along the coast.

"This is a life-threatening situation," the hurricane center posted.

ABC News is reporting that at least three people have died from the storm in South Florida, and more than 3.3 million lost power.

The hurricane is forecast to continue on as a strong Category 2, or low Category 3, as it moves north into Georgia.


The storm still tracks to the west of Charlotte, but there will still be impacts in Charlotte.

The rain totals have dropped off even more, generally between 1-2 inches. G

 

The winds are also forecast to be a bit weaker. They will gust near 40 mph or higher. This could lead to scattered power outages as we could see some trees come down.

Isolated tornadoes still can’t be ruled out, but the threat is low right now due to low instability levels (we only warm to the mid-60s Monday.) 

The worst weather is likely from sunset Monday to just after midnight into Tuesday morning. Clearing conditions slowly take shape through Tuesday.

 

 

The storm will still bring major impacts across Florida, damaging wind, heavy rain, storm surge and isolated tornadoes.

As it approaches Georgia, it will weaken to a tropical storm. The forecast path is further west which means the impacts won't be as big in our area.

Because of the hurricane's sheer size and magnitude, Charlotte will not escape at least some impact from the storm.

The threats remain for very heavy rain, gusty winds over 30 mph and the possibility of isolated tornadoes. Due to the aging Charlotte tree canopy, it is reasonable to assume that there will be some downed trees.

 

 

Meanwhile, a hurricane watch is in effect from Edisto Beach, South Carolina to Florida.

A Tropical Storm Watch is in effect for Charleston County Northward to the Georgetown County line.  

The storm had been churning along with sustained winds of 185 mph for a full 24 hours, making it the strongest storm in duration in Atlantic history, surpassing Hurricane Allen in 1980.

[How to help areas devastated by Irma]

Just before noon Friday, the National Hurricane Center said that Hurricane Jose, which could threaten some of the islands already ravaged by Irma, had strengthened "an extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm. Jose is not expected to impact the United States.

 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is directing all public K-12 schools, state colleges, state universities and state offices to close Friday through Monday.

Chief meteorologist Steve Udelson said that as long as the hurricane moves west and weakens on land, it will spare the Charlotte area.

Unlike most storms that recurve into the Atlantic, Irma is likely to head northwest through the South Carolina Midlands and upstate into North Carolina early Tuesday. It is a fairly quick-mover, so conditions will improve quickly Tuesday.

[Jordan postpones UNC gameday visit due to Hurricane Irma]

[City of Charlotte on alert, prepared for potential impacts of Hurricane Irma]

[NC Gov. Cooper declares state of emergency effective Thursday morning]

[McMaster declares state of emergency for SC ahead of Irma's arrival]

NC Gov. Roy Cooper will be providing daily updates for each day as Irma approaches.

On Friday, he warned that though the latest storm track is more favorable for North Carolina, residents should not let their guard down.

“Things are looking better for much of North Carolina with Hurricane Irma, but we are not yet in the clear and we can't let our guard down. Irma is a powerful storm and we've seen the terrible damage in the Caribbean. It's also a large storm, roughly the size of the state of Texas, so we know that even if North Carolina is spared a direct hit, some parts of our state could still see serious impacts, particularly in the western part of our state. Those impacts include potential flash floods, tornadoes, power outages, landslides in the mountains. and on the coast, even though it may be clear there, rip currents which could be starting as early as this weekend.”

The impact will be felt along the South Carolina coast late Sunday, with showers at first before quickly deteriorating into Monday as wind and storm surge increase.

The storm will likely weaken to a Tropical Storm as it moves inland across the Carolinas and approaches Charlotte. The worst-case scenario would be damaging winds, heavy rain and severe weather threats in Charlotte.

The southern North Carolina coast will not be spared. The final track will determine how bad the effects will be though.

South Carolina started lane reversals heading away from the coast Saturday. Crews shifted the lanes on Interstate 26 at 10 a.m.

The Department of Transportation did the same thing for Hurricane Matthew last year and said it will ease congestion and make it easier for people to evacuate.

South Carolina has also activated a special hotline for people who have questions about Irma. The toll-free number is 1-866-246-0133.

It will be available 24 hours a day and will be open for as long as needed.

 

 

In the Charlotte area, it will be quiet this weekend before rain picks up through the day Monday. The final track is crucial how bad the effects will be.

[Shelters, Charlotte Motor Speedway open to Irma evacuees]

[Evacuees fleeing Florida may not escape Irma in North Carolina]

[If you live in coastal Carolina, do this by the end of the day]

If the storm passes to our west as forecast, damaging tropical storm force winds for 12 hours-plus hours and bring severe weather, and tornadoes will become more likely.

The worst of the storm will be Monday night after sunset until dawn Tuesday.

We would not be hit as hard if the storm passes to our east, but there is still a lot of uncertainty five to six days out to call for a definite forecast.

Crews to tow abandoned cars on highway

Highway officials are determined to keep traffic flowing through North Carolina for evacuees.

Crews will start towing any abandoned cars left on the shoulders of interstates.

On Friday, troopers went into their emergency protocol, which means they are ready to deploy within an hour of getting a call.

Charlotte hotels filling up as Irma evacuees find shelter

As families race to get out of Florida ahead of Irma, they are hoping cities like Atlanta and Charlotte will take them in.

Channel 9 reporter DaShawn Brown searched for vacant hotel rooms.

Outside of a Hilton property in South Park, it is the only hotels in the Charlotte area with rooms left.

Brown spoke to a hotel manager who said they don't have a lot of rooms and availability is constantly changing.

Channel 9 called at least a dozen Charlotte area hotels over the past two days and nearly all of them are completely booked.

People evacuating have faced the same problem.

A family Channel 9 spoke with evacuated from Miami. They headed for Atlanta, but couldn't find a place to stay, so they headed for Charlotte, which she said hasn't been easy.        

“It was chaotic,” Lyndenise Berdecia said. “There was gas shortages and lots of traffic. We're also traveling with my 90-year- old grandmother, so that's definitely a challenge.

Red Cross has staging area at old Eastland Mall

The Red Cross has a staging area at the old Eastland Mall location.

Trailers will be on the move to Florida and Georgia in the next 48 hours.

 The 25 trailers contain enough supplies to set up shelters for thousands of victims.

"This was initially the headquarters for all of North Carolina when we expected the track was going to come through this area,” Brad Newcombe, with Red Cross, said. “Now that the track has shifted, we want to shift our headquarters and logistical train closer to the center of impact."

Irma and North Carolina elections

The North Carolina Board of Elections is closely monitoring Hurricane Irma.

Primary elections, including Charlotte's mayoral race, are scheduled for Tuesday, the same day Irma is forecast to impact the Carolinas.

Officials with the state board of elections said it will reschedule the primaries if needed.

Store shelves empty

It's getting harder to find the essentials at Charlotte stores ahead of the storm’s arrival.

Channel 9 has visited dozens of hardware and grocery stores in the area and found that most shelves are already empty.

 

 

The hardest items to find are bottled water, batteries and generators. Other supplies like propane, flashlights and tarps are also running out.

"There ain't no water in there,” said Gerald Calvin. “There's no potato chips. The batteries like they were saying, none of that. Flashlights, nothing. It's unpredictable at the moment and we just want to make sure our family is safe."

 

 

Companies like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart told Channel 9 some of their stores may get more shipments in Friday, but many others won't see any more supplies until next week.

Blackhawk hardware store on Park Road said they have a special shipment coming on Sunday.

Walmart said they have trucks from as far away as Nevada rushing to bring more supplies to Charlotte.

Publix said they have trucks on the way bringing in water but expect it will sell out quickly.

"Water's been very hard to come by but I bought water last weekend so I was a little bit ahead of the game," Crystal March said.

The Home Depot in Gastonia had just gotten in a shipment of generators Friday but within minutes they sold nearly all of them.

"I looked at the other stores in charlotte and they don't seem to have one so I rode down here to Gastonia, I called about 30 minutes ago and the lady said they got a shipment in so I rode down here and got it," Charlotte resident Carlos Sharpe said.

Hurricane Irma slams Turks and Caicos on path to Florida

Hurricane Irma battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday as the fearsome Category 5 storm continued a rampage through the Caribbean that has killed at least 13 people, with Florida in its sights.

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

[Keep up with developments surrounding Irma by downloading the WSOC weather app]

[SPECIAL SECTION: Tropical Storms and Hurricanes]

The first hurricane warnings were issued for parts of southern Florida as the state braced for what could be a catastrophic hit over the weekend. Following in Irma's wake was Hurricane Jose, with some of the islands hit hardest by Irma in its expected path.

Irma weakened from a Category 5 storm to Category 4 on Friday morning with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph, but it remained a powerful hurricane.

 

 

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 the 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.


More Hurricane Irma coverage:


French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Thursday that four people were confirmed dead and about 50 injured on the French side of St. Martin, an island split between Dutch and French control, where homes were splintered and road signs scattered by the fierce winds. The cafes and clothing shops of the picturesque seaside village of Marigot were submerged in brown floodwaters. The toll could rise because rescue teams had yet to get a complete look at the damage.

Looting was reported in St. Martin. 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.

[HURRICANE IRMA: Live Updates]

[READ MORE: How are hurricanes categorized?]

The U.S. Consulate General in Curacao said it believes about 6,000 Americans are stranded on St. Martin. It said it was working with the U.S. and other governments to try to figure out how to get the Americans off the island either by air or boat. Frantic Americans were calling home to relatives to try to get them off the island ahead of Hurricane Jose.

At least four people were killed in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and officials said they expected to find more bodies. Authorities described the damage as catastrophic and said crews were struggling to reopen roads and restore power.


HELPFUL HURRICANE FACTS:

  • Hurricanes are rated on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. In order, they are Tropical Depression, Tropical Storm, Hurricane.
  • Hurricanes are rated from Category 1, the weakest, through Category 5, the strongest. There is no Category 6, despite what you may see on social media.
  • The center of a hurricane is considered the eye of the storm. Conditions in the eye are actually calm, the wind is not as strong and the sky usually clears due to sinking air.
  • Around the center of the eye is the eye wall. This is where the strongest winds within the storm are found.
  • The northeast quadrant of a tropical system is typically where you will see tornadoes. Hurricanes spin and that spinning motion can lead to isolated tornadoes. They tend to be weaker and harder to pick up on radar, but can still cause quite a bit of damage.
  • Most of the damage from hurricanes comes from water -- rain water and storm surge, especially for those along the coast.
  • Storm surge is a wall of rain that comes onshore, and it can cause massive flooding.
  • Each storm is different and will have different impacts to land. Harvey caused devastating flooding because it sat over Texas for several days, bringing very heavy rain. Irma currently is more of a wind threat, with top winds being clocked up to 185 mph. That said, Irma will also cause damage from heavy rain, storm surge and isolated tornadoes.

Three more deaths were reported on the British island of Anguilla, as well as Barbuda and the Dutch side of St. Martin.

The hospital on St. Thomas was destroyed and dozens of patients were being evacuated to St. Croix and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Coast Guard. Local official said a U.S. Navy hospital ship was arriving as early as Friday to care for unknown numbers of injured and two Air Force C-130s transport planes were bringing in food and water.

 

 

Power lines and towers were toppled, leaves were stripped off plants and trees, water and sewage treatment plants were heavily damaged and the harbor was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses. Gov. Kenneth Mapp imposed a 6 p.m. curfew.

The primary focus, for now, is "making sure people have meals, water and shelter," Mapp said. "An event of this magnitude is very chilling."

[The 6 deadliest hurricanes ever recorded]

Irma also slammed the French island of St. Barts, tearing off roofs and knocking out electricity in the high-end tourist destination.

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said 100,000 food rations were sent to St. Barts and St. Martin, the equivalent of four days of supplies.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the storm "caused wide-scale destruction of infrastructure, houses and businesses."

"There is no power, no gasoline, no running water. Houses are under water, cars are floating through the streets, inhabitants are sitting in the dark in ruined houses and are cut off from the outside world," he said.


More Hurricane/Tropical Storm Content:


The hurricane was passing just north of Great Inagua Island early Friday after sweeping Haiti and the Dominican Republic with high winds and rain while battering the Turks and Caicos islands on its other side.

Big waves smashed a dozen homes into rubble in the Dominican fishing community of Nagua, but work crews said all the residents had left before the storm. Officials said 11,200 people in all had evacuated vulnerable areas, while 55,000 soldiers had been deployed to help the cleanup.

In Haiti, two people were injured by a falling tree, a national roadway was blocked by debris and roofs were torn from houses along the northern coast but there were no immediate reports of deaths. Officials warned that could change as Irma continued to lash Haiti, where deforested hillsides are prone to devastating mudslides that have wiped out entire neighborhoods of precariously built homes in flood zones.

"We are vulnerable. We don't have any equipment to help the population," Josue Alusma, mayor of the northern city of Port de Paix, said on Radio Zenith FM.

 

 

Hundreds of miles to the west, Florida prepared for Irma's wrath, with forecasters warning the storm could slam headlong into the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, punish the entire length of the state's Atlantic coast and move into Georgia and South Carolina.

More than a half-million people in Miami-Dade County were ordered to leave as Irma closed in with winds of 160 mph.

"Take it seriously, because this is the real deal," said Maj. Jeremy DeHart, a U.S. Air Force Reserve weather officer who flew through the eye of Irma at 10,000 feet.

Farther out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose strengthened into a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds and posed a potential threat for Saturday to some of the same islands ravaged by Irma.

Irma, the most potent Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded, appeared increasingly likely to rip into heavily populated South Florida on Sunday afternoon after sweeping along Cuba's northern coast on Saturday.

People in Florida rushed to board up their homes, take their boats out of the water and gas up their cars. With gasoline running out and tensions rising, the Florida Highway Patrol escorted tanker trucks sent to replenish gas stations.

"It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said.

French President Emmanuel Macron's office said he would go to the islands as soon as the weather permits it. Saying he was "grief-stricken," Macron called for concerted efforts to tackle global warming to prevent similar natural disasters.

Two Dutch navy ships were in St. Martin with vital supplies. And two Dutch military aircraft were being sent to the island of Curacao and on to St. Martin to deliver food and water intended to last the population of 40,000 five days. The aircraft were carrying 100 extra troops to deliver aid, repair infrastructure and restore order.

Britain was sending hundreds of troops and the Royal Navy flagship HMS Ocean to Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands.

In Anguilla, officials reported extensive damage to the airport, hospitals, shelters and schools and said 90 percent of roads were impassable.

As Irma spins, Cuba evacuates; Floridians empty stores

Cuba evacuated tourists from beachside resorts and Floridians emptied stores of plywood and bottled water after Hurricane Irma left at least 20 people dead and thousands homeless on a devastated string of Caribbean islands and spun toward Florida for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend.

[Andrew was a monster; Irma could blow it out of the water]

The hurricane rolled past the Dominican Republic and Haiti and battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday with waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters). Communications went down as the storm slammed into the islands, and the extent of the devastation was unclear.

Irma also spun along the northern coast of Cuba, where thousands of tourists were evacuated from low-lying keys off the coast 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 the vulnerable coastline.

Warships and planes were dispatched with food, water and troops after Irma smashed homes, schools and roads, laying waste to some of the world's most beautiful and exclusive tourist destinations. On the island of St. Thomas, power lines and towers were toppled, leaves were stripped off plants and trees, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged and the harbor was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.

[State of emergency declared as storm tracks toward Florida]

[Hurricane Irma: Trump offers 'full resources' in call with Florida Gov. Scott]

Thousands of tourists were trapped on St. Martin, St. Barts, and the Virgin Islands in the path of Category 3 Hurricane Jose, which threatened to roll in from the Atlantic and strike as early as Saturday.

Irma weakened from a Category 5 storm to Category 4 on Friday morning with maximum sustained winds near 150 mph (240 kph), but it remained a powerful hurricane. Florida braced for the onslaught, with forecasters warning that Irma could slam headlong into the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, punish the entire length of the state's Atlantic coast and move into Georgia and South Carolina.

More than a half-million people in Miami-Dade County were ordered to leave as Irma closed in with winds of 175 mph (280 kph). People rushed to board up their homes, take their boats out of the water and gas up their cars. With gasoline running out and tensions rising, the Florida Highway Patrol escorted tanker trucks sent to replenish gas stations.

"It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate," Gov. Rick Scott said.

Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, said Irma could easily prove to be the costliest storm in U.S. history.

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

The storm had claimed at least 20 lives, including nine on the French Caribbean islands of St.-Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands and three on the British island of Anguilla, Barbuda and the Dutch side of St. Martin.

Hurricane Irma roared through the 40 small islands of the British Virgin Islands late Wednesday, causing major damage to the largest and most populated island of Tortola. Four people have died, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency said in a statement Friday. The agency gave no details. The British government has been coordinating relief efforts to the cluster of islands near Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Caribbean disaster agency says the Tortola airport is operational but the tower has been "compromised."

 

 

Officials on St. Thomas said they expected to find more bodies on the island where authorities described the damage as catastrophic and said crews were struggling to reopen roads and restore power.

The hospital on St. Thomas was destroyed and dozens of patients were being evacuated to St. Croix and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Coast Guard. Local officials said a U.S. Navy hospital ship was arriving as early as Friday to care for unknown numbers of injured and two Air Force C-130s transport planes were bringing in food and water.

Gov. Kenneth Mapp imposed a 6 p.m. curfew. The primary focus for now is "making sure people have meals, water and shelter," Mapp said. "An event of this magnitude is very chilling."

On St. Martin, an island split between the Dutch Sint Maarten and French St.-Martin, homes were splintered and road signs scattered by the fierce winds. The cafes and clothing shops of the picturesque French seaside village of Marigot were submerged in brown floodwaters and people surveyed the wreckage from whatever shelter they could find. The toll could rise because rescue teams had yet to get a complete look at the damage.

Annick Girardin, minister for France's overseas territories, said Friday that there had been "scenes of pillaging" of televisions as well as food and water on St. Martin. She said police were working to restore order and ensure urgent care for victims.

The U.S. Consulate General in Curaçao said it believes about 6,000 Americans were stranded on St. Martin. The consulate was collecting the names and locations of the stranded and said it was working with the U.S. and other governments to try to figure out how to get the Americans off the island either by air or boat.

Irma also slammed the French island of St. Barts, tearing off roofs and knocking out electricity in the high-end tourist destination.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the storm "caused wide-scale destruction of infrastructure, houses and businesses."

"There is no power, no gasoline, no running water. Houses are under water, cars are floating through the streets, inhabitants are sitting in the dark in ruined houses and are cut off from the outside world," he said.

Farther out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose strengthened into a Category 3 storm with 120 mph (195 kph) winds.

Two Dutch navy ships were in St. Martin with vital supplies. And two Dutch military aircraft were being sent the island of Curacao and on to St. Martin to deliver food and water intended to last the population of 40,000 five days. The aircraft were carrying 100 extra troops to deliver aid, repair infrastructure and restore order.

Britain was sending hundreds of troops and the Royal Navy flagship HMS Ocean to Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands.

In Anguilla, officials reported extensive damage to the airport, hospitals, shelters and schools and said 90 percent of roads were impassable.

On Barbuda, nearly every building was damaged when the hurricane's core crossed almost directly over the island early Wednesday. About 60 percent of its roughly 1,400 residents were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.

He said roads and telecommunications systems were wrecked and recovery will take months, if not years.

"It is just really a horrendous situation," Browne said.

Dominican and Haitian authorities reported flooding and minor damage in Irma's wake but no immediate deaths or widespread destruction. The neighboring nations remained vulnerable Friday to the sort of flooding that has killed thousands in previous storms and hurricanes.

About a million people were without power in Puerto Rico after Irma sideswiped the island overnight, and nearly half the territory's hospitals were relying on generators. No injuries were reported.

Hurricane warnings add urgency to Florida evacuations

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 5 hurricane tracking toward the state, and that volume turned normally simple trips into tests of will.

[American Airlines adds flights to help hurricane Irma victims]

[Delta, Southwest cancel flights due to Hurricane Irma]

[Thinking about leaving ahead of Hurricane Irma? Read this first]

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.

"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.

Late Thursday, the National Hurricane Center issued the first hurricane warnings for the Keys and parts of South Florida, including some of the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people and Lake Okeechobee. It added a storm surge warning and extended watch areas wrapping around the tip of the peninsula.

People along the Atlantic coast anxiously watched the behemoth while Irma battered the northern Caribbean, killing at least 11 people and leaving thousands homeless after destroying buildings and uprooting trees.

At least 31,000 people fled the Florida Keys, which could begin seeing wind and rain from Irma as early as Friday night, Gov. Rick Scott said. He noted the size of the powerful storm, and told residents not to become complacent.

"It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate," Scott said. He ordered all public schools, colleges and universities to close Friday through Monday.

With winds that peaked at 185 mph, Irma has been the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.

NASA secured Kennedy Space Center and SpaceX launched an unmanned rocket for an experimental flight. Kennedy closed its doors to all nonessential staff and a crew of about 120 people will ride out the storm on site.

Most of the critical buildings at Kennedy are designed to withstand gusts of up to 135 mph (220 kph). Irma's wind could exceed that if it reaches Cape Canaveral.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered evacuations for all areas east of Interstate 95, including the city of Savannah, and authorized about 5,000 National Guard members to help with response and recovery. Georgia was last struck by a hurricane of force Category 3 or higher in 1898.

Noel Marsden said he, his girlfriend, her son and their dog left Pembroke Pines north of Miami with plans to ride out Irma in Savannah, only to find the city was also shutting down because of Irma. Marsden wasn't sure where they would all end up.

"I've got a buddy in Atlanta and a buddy in Charlotte. We'll wind up one of those two places because there are not hotels, I can tell you that," he said.

Irma's eventual path and Florida's fate depends on when and how sharp the powerful hurricane takes a right turn, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said.

"It has become more likely that Irma will make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane," the Hurricane Center said in a forecast discussion Thursday afternoon.

The last Category 5 storm to hit Florida was Andrew in 1992. Its winds topped 165 mph (265 kph), killing 65 people and inflicting $26 billion in damage. It was at the time the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

U.S. Air Force Reserve weather officer Maj. Jeremy DeHart flew through the eye of Irma at 10,000 feet Wednesday and through Hurricane Harvey just before it hit Texas last month.

He said Irma's intensity set it apart from other storms.

"Spectacular is the word that keeps coming to mind. Pictures don't do it justice. Satellite images can't do it justice," DeHart said.