Irma’s leading edge brought hurricane-force winds to the Florida Keys late Saturday, bending palm trees and spitting rain as the storm swirled north with 120 mph (190 kph) winds on a projected new track that could expose St. Petersburg — not Miami or even Tampa — to a direct hit.
St. Petersburg, like Tampa, has not taken a head-on blow from a major hurricane in nearly a century.
The National Hurricane Center’s latest tweak to Irma’s forecasted track has the storm hugging the Florida’s west coast off Fort Myers, but possibly not making landfall there before moving back to the Gulf of Mexico. By moving the likely track a few crucial miles west, the storm would be able to regain strength over water before its deadliest winds hit St. Petersburg and Clearwater, rather than the more populated Tampa.
After that, the storm is now expected to skirt the coast again a bit north of Horseshoe Beach, then finally go inland around Fish Creek, northwest of Ocala, with a hurricane-force wind field well over 100 miles wide.
Irma’s forward motion slowed to 6 mph (10 kph) as the storm stuttered off the coast of Cuba. Forecasters say it could still increase in strength, but their forecast didn’t show it.
An estimated 70,000 Floridians huddled in shelters as Irma closed in on the Keys, where the storm’s center was expected to swirl over land Sunday morning.
“This is your last chance to make a good decision,” Gov. Rick Scott warned residents in Florida’s evacuation zones, which encompassed a staggering 6.4 million people, or more than 1 in 4 people in the state.
Earlier in the day, Irma executed a westward swing toward Florida’s Gulf coast that appeared to spare the Miami metropolitan area of the catastrophic direct hit that forecasters had been warning of for days.
Still, Miami was not out of danger. Because the storm’s damaging winds stretch 350 to 400 miles wide, forecasters said the metro area of 6 million people could still get life-threatening gusts and a storm surge of 4 to 6 feet.
Irma — at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic — left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean as it steamed toward the U.S.
It was chugging toward Florida as a Category 3, with winds down considerably from their peak of 185 mph (300 kph) earlier in the week.
Meteorologists predicted Irma would plow into the Tampa Bay area by Monday morning, delivering the area its first major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about…