It’s a question that comes up every time severe weather threatens to strike: What’s the difference between an official warning and a watch?
For Hurricane Irma, the Category 5 storm that’s coming closer and closer to Florida and mainland U.S., most watches have been the precursor to a warning in the area.
The official difference is a hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected within the warning area imminently. Once a warning is issued for the area, “preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” according to the National Hurricane Center.
As of the Thursday 11 a.m. update on Hurricane Irma, areas under hurricane warnings include parts of the Dominican Republic, parts of Haiti, the Southeastern Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Central Bahamas and the Northwestern Bahamas.
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A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are merely possible within the area, and that tropical storm winds are anticipated within a 48-hour period. So in Hurricane Irma’s case, even though it appears Irma is on track to hit more than just South Florida, South Florida is the only part of the state currently under a watch because Irma isn’t at risk of hitting other parts of the state within 48 hours.
The 48-hour window before tropical storm winds even start is meant to give people in the area time to protect themselves and their property before “conditions that make outside preparations difficult or dangerous.”
As of the Thursday 11 a.m. update on Hurricane Irma, areas under hurricane watches include Florida’s Jupiter Inlet, the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee, Florida Bay and parts of Cuba.
The National Hurricane Center also issues storm surge watches, which means “there is a possibility of life-threatening inundation, from rising water moving inland from the coastline, in the indicated locations during the next 48 hours,” according to forecasters. Florida’s Jupier Inlet and the Florida Keys are under storm surge watches as of Thursday. Water in those areas is expected to reach five to ten feet above ground if the surge hits at high tide.
There are also tropical storm warnings and watches, which follow similar definitions of the hurricane warnings and watches.