Sept. 9 (UPI) – Hurricane Irma slowly began to move away from the Cuban coast Saturday afternoon — and will soon turn northwest for its final push into the United States mainland, forecasters said.

The National Hurricane Center said in its 5 p.m. advisory that the Category 3 storm’s center was about 50 miles east-northeast of Varadero, Cuba, 115 miles southeast of Key West and 150 miles southwest of Miami. The storm has maximum sustained winds of 125 mph. It’s moving west-northwest at 9 mph.

In its update, the NHC said a hurricane watch — meaning a storm is imminent — was issued for west of the Aucilla River to Indian Pass, Fla. A storm surge warning was also extended from the Volusia-Brevard
County Line north to the South Santee River.

Storm surge warnings remain in effect for the Florida Keys and Tampa Bay. Surges could bring as many as 15 feet of water near the coastlines.

“A northwest motion is expected to begin tonight with a turn toward the north-northwest on Sunday,” the NHC said.

Image courtesy National Hurricane Center

Tornado watches have also been issued for nine Florida counties.

Though Irma is now a Category 3 storm, forecasters said it could restrengthen in the warm waters of the Florida Straits.

“Irma is forecast to restrengthen once it moves away from Cuba and remain a powerful hurricane as it approaches Florida,” the NHC advisory said.

Irma’s hurricane-force winds can be felt up to 70 miles from its center, and tropical-storm winds extend up to 195 miles. Irma’s wind speeds have made it the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic basin, outside the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, in the NHC’s recorded history, the center said.

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