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'Irma' lost its oomph over Cuba

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Before crashing into Florida, Hurricane Irma set all sorts of records for brute strength as it flattened Caribbean islands and swamped the Florida Keys.

Irma's assault so soon after Harvey's deluge of Houston marked the first time the U.S. was hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year.

Irma hit the Sunshine State as a big wide beast, though not quite the monster it once was shaping up to be.

Earlier, it was the most powerful recorded storm in the open Atlantic.

But as the once-Category 5 storm neared the U.S. mainland, it lost some oomph after running into the northern coast of Cuba.

Winds dropped to a quite potent 115 m.p.h. (185 km/h) by the time Irma made landfall on Marco Island, on the Florida peninsula, still a major and dangerous hurricane yet not near its 185 m.p.h. (297 km/h) former self.

On top of that, Irma avoided what could have been its most destructive paths along the Florida peninsula over Miami and the heavily-developed Atlantic seaboard.

Still, at about 640 km wide, it raked much of the state with devastating storm surge, destructive winds, and drenching rains before weakening.

“There's a huge difference between a [Category] 3 and 5 when it makes landfall,” said private meteorologist Ryan Maue of WeatherBell Analytics.

“Barbuda is an example of that. It was wiped.”

“This is obviously not the worst-case scenario for Florida overall,” noted Maue.

Had the centre of Irma hit Florida 30-50 km to the east, “it would have been much worse.”

Florida can thank Cuba, where it did hit as a Category 5 storm, said Maue and Jeff Masters, meteorology director for Weather Underground.

Irma probably would have hit Florida as a Category 5 hurricane if it had missed Cuba, Masters told The Associated Press.

The storm briefly trekked over Cuba's low-populated coast Friday evening through Saturday afternoon.

That weakened Irma enough that when upper-level winds from the west eroded some of the storm's top and also blew in dry air, it had the combined of effect of making Irma more ragged, Masters said.

Slightly weakened from Cuba, the storm got caught up in competing weather systems a little longer, delaying its northward right turn into Florida.

And that delay pushed the track further west, making it more of a threat to Florida's west coast than its east.

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