Durham County

175 mph hurricane winds hitting Triangle? A meteorologist assesses the chances

Bad weather

The National Hurricane Center upgraded Hurricane Irma to a Category 5 force of nature Tuesday morning and as 8 a.m. recorded her maximum sustained winds at 175 mph.

Currently in the Atlantic Ocean east of the Virgin Islands, Irma is forecast to hold a westerly course through Tuesday, and Tuesday night veer to the west-northwest.

Predictions of Irma’s ultimate course indicate an ever more unlikely chance that her gusts will hit the Triangle.

But there’s good news even if they do.

Meteorologist Nick Petro of the National Weather Service in Raleigh said even if Irma’s storm winds blow across the Piedmont later this week, the probability of winds reaching speeds anywhere close to 175 mph are slim to none – closer to none.

“The models have been showing Irma’s shifting west, with time,” Petro said. “When I say ‘the models,’ I mean the dozens and dozens of models analyzing this hurricane’s path.”

Petro said, warm ocean water acts as fuel for hurricanes.

Once on land, Petro said, without warm water feeding the hurricane-class storm, it begins to weaken.

“As soon as they make landfall they begin to weaken. Even if we had a [Hurricane] Fran situation, 175 mile per hour winds would not hit the Triangle,” Petro said. “That is if the storm were to follow Fran’s track.”

Hurricane Fran made a North Carolina landfall 21 years ago today – on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 5, 1996 – striking the tip of Cape Fear with maximum sustained winds nearing 115 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

At the time, Fran was the most expensive natural disaster ever for North Carolina. According to the National Hurricane Center, Fran, a Category 3 hurricane, killed 26 people and cost $4.16 billion in damages.

As of 2001, Fran was the 16th most costly U.S. hurricane in the country’s history.

“Fran moved right down I-40,” Petro said. “Yes. It was like Fran drove from the coast, following I-40.”

Even so, by the time Fran hit Durham, her winds had weakened to 70 to 80 mph.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks