Hurricane Irma regained Category 5 status late Friday as it skirted past Cuba before forecasters say it makes a turn toward Florida.
The National Hurricane Center said in its 11 p.m. Eastern advisory that Irma's maximum sustained wind speeds increased to 160 miles per hour, up from the mid to low 150s that the storm has been most of the afternoon.
The difference is small, but significant as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which the NHC uses, a Category 5 storm has sustained winds of 157 mph or higher.
Hurricane force winds extend 70 miles out from the eye, meaning this compenent of the storm is effectively 140 miles wide, which is comparable to the width of the Florida peninsula in some parts. The warning zone in the state also expanded northward with the latest advisory. Earlier in the week Irma had reached Category 5 status for record-breaking run at 185 mph before dropping to 160 mph and below.
Forecasters throughout the day have warned that perhaps more dangerous than the wind and heavy rain, is the storm surge threatening the coasts of Florida, which could reach 8 to 12 feet in southwest parts of the state, and 5 to 10 feet along the Keys. NHC called it the storm surge threat "life-threatening."
Not only is a storm surge a threat, but also the waves and wind can make them taller and more dangerous, forecasters said.
"The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline," the advisory from NHC said. "The water is expected to reach the following HEIGHTS ABOVE GROUND if the peak surge occurs at the time of high tide..."
Mandatory evacuations have been ordered in parts of Florida and neighboring states, leading to traffic jams, but as the storm's forecasted track has moved west Key West is directly in the storm's sights. The storm, which made landfall in Cuba Friday evening, is expected to make landfall in Florida early Sunday morning.
Rainfall is expected to be between 8 to 15 inches in the Keys and parts of the Florida peninsula and southeast Georgia, creating dangerous situations for low-lying areas. There is also threat of "life-threatening" flash floods, mudslides and tornados in some areas.
The Associated Press reported earlier in the day that officials said 5.6 million people had been asked to evacuate Florida before the storm arrives.
The National Weather Service issued a stern warning Friday afternoon to Key West residents that with the coming of Hurricane Irma they need to evacuate because "this is as real as it gets."
"Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe," the NWS Key West account said in a tweet in all caps. "You still have time to evacuate."
Meanwhile Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted out a plea to nurses to volunteer at special needs shelters across the state. "CALLING ALL NURSES: FL needs 1,000 volunteer nurses to help at our special needs shelters," he said.
President Trump has been briefed on the hurricane situation by advisers, the White House said Friday evening.
"The President pledges continued support to the Governors of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Florida and urges all those in the path of these storms to heed the directions of State, territorial, and local officials," the statement said.
President Trump has approved emergency declarations for Florida, South Carolina, Georgia Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Two other storms are active in the Atlantic; Katia, which is a Category 1 hurricane making landfall in Mexico; and Jose, a Category 4 hurricane further out in the Atlantic threatening the island of Barbuda, which only days ago was battered by Irma. The occasion of these storms marks the first time since 2010 that three active hurricanes have been in the Atlantic.
This trio of hurricanes follows Hurricane Harvey, which late last month devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana.
Trumpsigned a $15.25 billion disaster relief bill on Friday that also includes a three-month extension of both federal government funding and borrowing authority, a move that ends the threat of a partial government shutdown at the end of the month.