The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has downgraded Hurricane Irma to a category 3 hurricane from category 4, as winds slacken slightly and the storm picks up speed to move north at 12 miles per hour. However, NOAA warns that the storm is still life-threatening as it moves towards Tampa Bay, thanks to sustained winds as high as 120 miles per hour and the threat of storm surges of between six and 15 feet.
Irma remains off the west coast of Florida as it moves past Miami, but the city is being buffeted by high winds and heavy rain. Damage reported so far includes two toppled construction cranes.
Irma’s next target is Naples, north of Miami, where the storm has now made landfall again. Florida Governor Rick Scott owns a waterfront mansion in Naples, where winds have already risen to over 120 miles per hour. Ocean levels and high waves there could surge as high as 15 feet.
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Irma is expected to reach Tampa Bay later tonight, though high winds will arrive much sooner.
Dr. Joel Myers, founder of Accuweather, predicts that Irma will ultimately be “the worst single hurricane to hit Florida since Huricane Andrew in 1992.”
For Tampa, however, a storm like this has been even longer coming — it has been nearly a century since a major hurricane struck Florida’s second-most populous metropolitan area. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn spoke plainly about what the city is facing, writing earlier today that “we are about to get punched in the face by this storm.”