North Carolina could begin to feel the force of Hurricane Irma as early as Sunday morning.
Irma was closing in on the U.S. Virgin Islands and expected to pass near or north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon or evening, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm’s effects will be felt soon on the North Carolina coast in the form of rough surf and beach erosion, meteorologists say. Tropical-storm force winds could reach the state by Sunday at 8 a.m., according to the latest predictions from the hurricane center.
Irma will pass near or just north of the coast of the Dominican Republic Thursday and be near the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the southeastern Bahamas, late Thursday.
Irma threw its first 185-mph punch at land early Wednesday on the islands of Barbuda and Antigua, the center said.
The storm, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, was driving north-northwest about 16 mph, the hurricane center said, and was likely to stay on that track for the next two days.
A computer model showed that tropical-storm-force winds, which now go out 175 miles from the eye of the hurricane, will begin buffeting southern Florida on Saturday morning.
The predicted storm track issued at 6 a.m. has bent to the north from Tuesday’s models and seems aimed at Florida.
ABC11 meteorologist Don Schwenneker said that combining various models makes predictions tenuous, however.
“If we look ... we do see a more eastward shift [from Tuesday] in the modeling,” Schwenneker said, “but we continue to see a BIG spread in the model solutions. And don’t just focus on the fact that the storms are now east...
“The models will move the storms back and forth. When we see several runs where the storm stays in the same path, then we start to know where it’s headed.”
Forecasters at the National Weather Service’s Wilmington station said Wednesday that there is a high risk of rip currents along the southwestern North Carolina coast.
“Swells from Hurricane Irma will create a prolonged period of dangerous beach conditions in the form of numerous strong rip currents and rough surf mid- and late week,” they said.
At Morehead City, forecasters said there was a moderate chance of rip currents Wednesday, but that will increase on Thursday and remain high through Tuesday.
“A high rip-current risk is likely through much of the period, with large surf bringing dangerous shore break with possible beach erosion late in the week and into the weekend,” their assessment says.
Damage in the islands hit Wednesday was believed to be extensive, but communications went down during the night as Irma hit, and the seriousness was not known right away, the Associated Press reported.
The hurricane center said Irma could fluctuate between a Category 4 and a Category 5 storm over the next two days but will remain very dangerous.
As Irma began to batter places where people live, forecasters were watching two tropical storms that have formed since Irma – Jose in the Atlantic and Katia in the western Gulf of Mexico.
The hurricane center said Jose was expected to hit hurricane strength Wednesday and begin to bend northwest from its morning course to the west.
Wednesday morning, Jose was well out in the Atlantic, about 1,255 miles east of the Lesser Antilles islands.