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The Worst Case Scenario For Hurricane Irma Looks Likely

UPDATE (Sept. 8, 8:46 p.m.): The National Hurricane Center’s latest forecasted track for Hurricane Irma reflects model trends that suggest the storm will make landfall in Florida a little further west than expected this morning.

The new track is very bad news for the Florida Keys and western Florida. Key West is now expecting up to Category 4 force winds (as high as 140 mph). Hurricane and storm surge warnings are now in effect for Fort Myers, Naples and Sarasota on the western coast. Sustained winds are expected to max out at 115 mph (Category 3), 130 mph (Category 4) and 105 mph (Category 2) in Fort Myers, Naples and Sarasota respectively. Rainfall totals in those areas are now forecasted to be 8 to 15 inches or more with potentially up to 12 inches in the Tampa area and further north.

Miami, though, is still in a precarious position, with heavy rain and storm surge forecasted. But, in a little bit of a silver lining, sustained wind speeds may max out there at 70 mph — still strong, but lower than`the 125 mph forecasted earlier today. Rainfall from Miami to southeast Georgia is still expected to be 8 to 15 inches or more.

And remember, keep an eye on the forecast. Irma’s expected track could still change. And no matter where you are in Florida, it’s going to be bad.

Meteorologists’ worst fears for Hurricane Irma look like they may come true. But while a major storm is likely to affect Florida, Georgia and potentially South Carolina from Saturday into Tuesday, the exact details are still to be ironed out. A slight change in the storm’s trajectory could make the difference between a major hurricane for some areas and a historically devastating one.

The latest 8 a.m. National Hurricane Center forecast on Friday has Irma hitting to the west of Miami on Sunday as a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 125 mph possible. A hurricane warning is in effect for the entire Miami metropolitan area.

If this forecast is perfect, Irma would be the strongest hurricane to hit the Miami area since Category 5 Andrew devastated it in 1992. Andrew led to 44 deaths in Florida and over $40 billion in damages (in 2017 dollars). And remember: Although the winds would be bad with Irma, most hurricane deaths occur because of storm surge. (See Hurricane Sandy as an example of the dangers of storm surge.) Indeed, a “life-threatening storm surge” warning has been issued for the Miami metro. Rainfall will add additional problems with at least 10 to 15 inches expected in southeast Florida and the Florida Keys.

Just concentrating on the Miami area, however, doesn’t do Irma justice. As you can see in the track above, the storm is expected to ride northward through Florida. Irma is forecasted to still be a tropical storm with 45 mph winds when it reaches central Georgia on Tuesday. Such a track could lead to 6 inches or more of rainfall up through Florida and all the way to South Carolina.

It’s worth noting, however, that it’s still possible for Irma to veer off-course from the National Hurricane Center’s most likely track. Even 48 hours before a storm is supposed to hit a given area, the average National Hurricane Center forecast has been off by an average of more than 80 miles this decade. That may not seem like a lot, but that’s greater than the distance between Everglades City on the west coast of Florida and Miami on the east coast. Right now, Irma’s center is most likely to pass west of Miami. But if the hurricane tracks to Miami’s east instead, it could mean the city riding out Category 1 winds (greater than 74 mph) rather than Category 3 winds (greater than 110 mph). (Hurricane winds are generally strongest on the east side of the storm.) Of course, people should prepare for the worst possible scenario, which in this case is also the most likely one.

Additionally, it’s not clear where the storm will go after southern Florida. As I said earlier this week, the National Hurricane Center’s forecast error cone is based on real uncertainty, not out of an abundance of caution. If the storm strays slightly to the east of Miami, it’s possible that Irma’s eye would stay over the ocean before making a landfall in coastal Georgia or southeast South Carolina. Such a track might spare Miami from the worst case scenario, but it would mean stronger winds into Georgia and South Carolina. Along with those stronger winds might come stronger storm surge. Nearly all the attention is on Florida right now, but other states are in danger too, and should be watching the storm.

Indeed, uncertainty aside, pretty much all of Hurricane Irma’s potential paths are dangerous for the Southeast U.S. Even taking into account possible forecast errors, it seems quite likely that Irma will be deadly and costly. If you’re in the areas that will likely be affected, please be prepared.

Read more: “What Lies In Irma’s Path”

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.