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At the National Hurricane Center, calm amid historic storm
Mark DeMaria at the National Hurricane Center. (Joel Achenbach/The Washington Post)

MIAMI — The National Hurricane Center is remarkably calm and hushed, considering what’s coming directly this way. The center is out by the Turnpike, on the campus of Florida International University, a location that puts it much further from the coast than the old headquarters in Coral Gables, which was badly damaged during Hurricane Andrew.

The forecasters here are giving regular updates on Irma and taking turns giving TV interviews. The place will get busier in the next few days, and on Saturday night will go into lockdown, with metal shutters enclosing the doors and everyone in for the night until the storm passes.

Irma remains on track to hit South Florida, and on Thursday, the center posted a hurricane watch for coastal Florida all the way from Jupiter Inlet in northern Palm Beach County down around the tip of the peninsula to Bonita Beach in southwest Florida just north of Naples. That includes the Florida Keys and Lake Okeechobee. A storm surge watch has also been posted.

What’s unclear is precisely where the center of the storm — and the destructive winds of the eye wall — will be when Irma approaches and passes through the area.

The spaghetti tracks generally agree that all of South Florida’s population center will experience hurricane conditions. But it’s the eye wall that contains the most powerful and destructive winds. So even within the hurricane there are gradations of violence.

“The wild card here is the turn. Anytime a hurricane makes a turn it introduces uncertainty,” Mark DeMaria, acting deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, said as his colleagues stared at screens showing the approaching Category 5 storm.

He said the models have been consistent, and day-to-day changes haven’t been dramatic, only on the order of 50 miles this way or that.

“But 50 miles onshore versus right of the coast makes a huge difference in impact,” he said.

Florida’s geography, its population density pattern and the track of the storm are particularly unfortunate.

“This is a large storm coming from the south. It hits the entire population of South Florida,” said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the center. “That’s the worst case scenario because it takes in the entire Gold Coast population and you have the greatest impact from storm surge from that direction.”

Hurricane Irma: Storm moves north after pounding Florida
Heavy winds and rain are seen in Miami on Sunday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Irma, the record-setting hurricane that devastated islands across the Caribbean, has been churning north through Florida — and has turned its sights on Georgia.

Visit the Capital Weather Gang’s live updates page for more on the storm.