MIDWAY, Fla. (WTXL) -- Hurricane Irma hammered the Leeward Islands early Wednesday and skimmed Puerto Rico by late-afternoon with incredible winds and gusts as it maintained a high level of force.
Irma is moving west-northwest at 16 mph, situated about 70 miles north-northwest of Puerto Rico Wednesday night. Highest sustained winds around the center of the storm are 185 mph, and wind gusts are estimated to reach 225 mph.
The forecast track maintains a west-northwest orientation through the rest of this week, nearing the northern edges Hispaniola Thursday as a still-major hurricane. Water temperatures are in the mid and upper 80s in this region, which will support its extremely strong Category 5 status.
A strong high-pressure ridge to the north will keep Irma traveling west-northwestward, until it reaches near the Florida Straits over the weekend. The edge of the ridge, and some weakness in the atmosphere over the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, are expected to have a greater effect to turn Irma to the northwest, then north. This movement may place the hurricane near the Florida Keys with a possible path near or over the southern tip of Florida.
From there, projections show a trend toward northerly movement, near or over Florida through early next week. A path over land will lead to gradual weakening, but still possible destructive winds and significant storm surges on both the west and east coast. Many guidance models suggest a path over the western Atlantic, just off the east coast and reminiscent of 2016's hurricane Matthew, but at this phase, it's not possible to say the track will be exactly like that.
When it comes to impacts for northern Florida and southern Georgia, the picture is still a bit foggy but becoming slightly better understood. Considering the above forecast, periods of breezes are possible in northern Florida, along with periods of rain, starting late Sunday through Monday and possibly into early Tuesday. If the storm travels farther east of the region, its effects here would be lessened. If Irma travels closer to the west coast, or over the eastern Gulf waters, local impacts would be greatly enhanced.
While a track over the eastern Gulf is the least-likely outcome, further monitoring and analysis of the weather pattern and forecast data will provide greater forecast clarity toward this weekend.
Elsewhere in the tropics, Hurricane Jose is in the Cape Verde region, with a path toward the west and northwest through the next several days in the open Atlantic, with the possibility to become a major hurricane and a chance to approach some of the very same islands that were struck by Irma.
In the southwestern Gulf, Katia developed quickly into the season's latest hurricane, but a front to the north of it will keep Katia over the Bay of Campeche with an eventual landfall along the Gulf coast of Mexico.