Hurricane Irma

The National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C., released this graphic of Hurricane Irma at noon EDT Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.

WILMINGTON, N.C. – Irma is expected to remain a major hurricane as it moves toward Florida this weekend.

On Tuesday evening, the hurricane was carrying winds of 185 miles an hour and was being reported as the strongest ever recorded for a storm in the Atlantic Ocean. It was on a path toward Florida and bearing down on the northern Leeward Islands, including Antigua and Barbuda, as well as the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Large forecast uncertainties exist for early next week, and the Carolinas could also receive effects from Irma.

“It’s too early to tell with certainty, and we can’t afford to let our guard down,” said a spokesman for the National Weather Service in Wilmington, which issued a briefing Tuesday.

More directly from the briefing:

“The potential for dangerous surf and strong rip currents will increase through the week as swells from Irma build and move toward the coast. However, it is too early to tell at this time what/if any specific surge, wind, rainfall, and tornado impacts could occur in this part of the Carolinas. If direct impacts occur, then they would be expected during a Mon-Tue time frame. “

The weather service listed three key points:

>> 1. Regardless of the latest track everyone in hurricane-prone areas across the Southeast United States should have hurricane plans in place.

>> 2. Remain alert, check your supplies and remember that there are large track errors in long-range hurricane predictions.

>> 3. Monitor only official and credible sources for the latest information on Irma, especially since there is a lot of misinformation being shared on social media.

The South Carolina Department of Transportation began making storm preparations on Tuesday.

Crews in all 46 counties are inspecting equipment, checking the inventory of supplies such as barricades, cones and replacement traffic signals. All counties have a 10-day fuel supply for equipment and vehicles.

Crews are inspecting low-lying areas that are prone to flooding. Drainage systems are being checked to make sure they are clear. Generators are in place to provide emergency power to critical facilities such as traffic management centers that monitor traffic through traffic cameras and other systems.

S.C. traffic engineers are monitoring interstate traffic as Florida and Georgia residents may travel north to avoid the path of the hurricane should it take that route.

Leland Colvin, deputy secretary for engineering, said all actions are preliminary.

“These are the normal processes we would begin should any emergency arise. SCDOT wants to be prepared as much as possible, particularly when conditions could change rapidly. We have to expect the unexpected,” said Colvin.

The department encourages the public to monitor the situation on the 511 Traveler Service: 511sc.org.

The storm, a dangerous Category 5, posed an immediate threat to the small islands of the northern Leewards.

"The Leeward Islands are going to get destroyed," warned Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach, a noted hurricane expert. "I just pray that this thing wobbles and misses them. This is a serious storm."

Irma had maximum sustained winds of 185 mph in late afternoon as it approached the Caribbean from the east, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Four other storms have had winds that strong in the overall Atlantic region but they were in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, which usually have warmer waters that fuel cyclones. Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980, while 2005's Wilma, 1988's Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Key storm all had 185-mph winds.

Irma is so strong because of the unusually warm waters for that part of the Atlantic.

Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 60 miles from the center and tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 175 miles.

The center of Irma was about 130 miles east of Antigua and about 135 miles east-southeast of Barbuda, prompting an ominous warning from officials as the airport closed.

People in the two-island nation should seek protection from Irma's "onslaught," officials warned in a statement, closing with: "May God protect us all."

Several small islands were directly in the path of the storm. In addition to Barbuda they included Anguilla, a small, low-lying British island territory of about 15,000 people.

Authorities there converted three churches and a school into shelters as they prepared for a big storm surge and the full brunt of the winds.

"People normally go to friends and family during a storm. We'll see," said Melissa Meade, director of the Disaster Management Department. "We'll find out soon enough."

The storm was moving west at 15 mph, and the hurricane center said there was a growing possibility its effects could be felt in Florida later this week and over the weekend.

If it stays on the forecast track and reaches the Florida Straits, the water there is warm enough that the already "intense" storm could become much worse with wind speeds potentially reaching 225 mph, warned Kerry Emanuel, an MIT meteorology professor.

"People who are living there (the Florida Keys) or have property there are very scared, and they should be," Emanuel said.

The storm's eye was expected to pass about 50 miles from Puerto Rico late today.

For the U.S. "this looks like at this point that it's very hard to miss," said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. "You'd be hard pressed to find any model that doesn't have some impact on Florida. Whether it's the worst case or next-to-worst case, it doesn't look good."

In Florida, residents stocked up on drinking water and other supplies.

Gov. Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 National Guard members were to report to duty Friday when the storm could be approaching the area. On Monday, Scott declared a state of emergency in all of Florida's 67 counties.

Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma's path, and the mayor of Miami-Dade county said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most of the county's coastal areas.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days' worth of food and water.

A new tropical storm also formed in the Atlantic on Tuesday, to the east of Irma. The hurricane center said Tropical Storm Jose was about 1,505 miles east of the Lesser Antilles with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph. It was moving west-northwest at 13 mph and was expected to become a hurricane by Friday.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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