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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.
"The path of the storm is such that right now, it looks like it'll be heading straight up the spine of Florida," Walsh said. "The weekend is going to be really bad, for Florida and the Southeast."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott preemptively declared a state of emergency Monday, to prepare the state for Irma.
"While the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared," Scott said in a statement. "This state of emergency allows our emergency management officials to act swiftly in the best interest of Floridians without the burden of bureaucracy or red tape."
The ease with which you can shift plans depends on where you're traveling. (See infographic below for tips.)
Major airlines — including American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and United — have issued travel advisories related to Hurricane Irma and are waiving the change fees for travelers to reschedule their flights. But as of early Tuesday, the advisories did not include Florida or other areas of the continental United States.
As the storm's path becomes more defined, the airlines are likely to be proactive about canceling flights and issuing waivers for Florida and other areas in the Southeast, Walsh said. Travelers bound to, from or through areas likely to be affected should sign up for flight alerts to receive early notification of any changes, he said.
Irma is a named storm, so it's too late to pick up travel insurance for your trip. But if you already have a policy in place, check to see if its protections have kicked in (depending on your coverage, they may not have, yet).