Hurricane Irma has strengthened into a Category 5 storm. Travelers looking to stay out of its way may find it's not so easy yet to change plans.
The latest advisories from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center predict that the "potentially catastrophic" Category 5 storm will continue to strengthen as it moves toward the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday and into Wednesday. Areas with hurricane warnings in effect cover most of those islands (which include Antigua, St. Martin and the U.S. Virgin Islands), as well as Puerto Rico; areas under a hurricane watch include parts of Haiti, Dominican Republic and the southeastern Bahamas.
"Some fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Irma is forecast to remain a powerful category 4 or 5 hurricane during the next couple of days," according to the advisory.
(In August, NOAA raised its tropical storm and hurricane forecast for this year, predicting an "extremely active season." It expects 14 to 19 named storms, including five to nine hurricanes and two to five major hurricanes. Irma is the ninth named storm of the season, and the fourth hurricane.)
It's still too early to say what impact Hurricane Irma could have on the United States. Forecast models give the storm a 70 percent to 80 percent probability of hitting South Florida on Friday into Saturday, said meteorologist Paul Walsh, director of weather strategy at IBM Global Business Services. From there, the storm is likely to move north over the weekend, affecting Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, he said.