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Lee is a hurricane now and will be a 'major' storm soon — with 155 mph winds or more

This National Hurricane Center graphic, produced at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, shows the projected path and strengthening of Hurricane Lee as it moves across the Atlantic Ocean.
Credit: NOAA/National Hurricane Center
This National Hurricane Center graphic, produced at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, shows the projected path and strengthening of Hurricane Lee as it moves across the Atlantic Ocean.

Updated September 6, 2023 at 5:05 PM ET

Lee has strengthened into a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean and forecasters say it's expected to grow rapidly into a major hurricane by this weekend.

In its last advisory, the National Hurricane Center said Lee has winds of 80 mph and is moving toward the Leeward Islands. Forecasters are already using stark language about the storm and its prospects.

"It is becoming a question of when and not if rapid intensification occurs with Lee," the advisory noted. Winds are forecast to reach 155 mph which is a high-end Category 4 'major hurricane' with the possibility of "explosive intensification."

This already is a 15 mph increase from the NHC's initial advisory on Tuesday. The reason for the higher wind speed is the above-average water temperatures in the area of the Atlantic the storm is churning through. "The system should be moving over record-warm waters ... east of the Lesser Antilles." Forecasters say those kinds of water temperatures are what they typically see in the Gulf of Mexico — not in the much cooler ocean.

This forecast — so far out in the Atlantic — with a prediction of strengthening this quickly is unusual. Still, it's too early to say with any certainty exactly where this storm will go.

Most of the long-range models have Lee eventually curving north - missing the Caribbean and remaining offshore of the United States. While models are generally accurate, they're not perfect. Hurricane Irma, in 2017, was supposed to follow a similar path - but instead walloped the Gulf coast of Florida.

Even if Lee misses land, forecasters say swells generated by Lee "are expected to reach portions of the Lesser Antilles on Friday, and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico this weekend. These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions."

Lee is the the 13th named storm of what is an above-average Atlantic hurricane season. As researcher Phil Klotzbach notes, only "4 other years on record have had 13+ Atlantic named storms by Sept. 5: 2005, 2011, 2012, 2020."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.