MIAMI — 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.