A record-destroying monster by every measure, the colossal Category 5 tempest known as Hurricane Irma knocked out communications and veritably leveled the Leewards and other islands throughout the Caribbean, with winds reaching a harrowing 151 mph on St. Barthelemy — or, it that speed was recorded shortly before the storm toppled the weather station and the sturdiest, government buildings, as well as nearly everything else, down to the shrubbery.
Then, as it ripped a swath of decimation through the vacationer’s paradise, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami recorded sustained speeds of 185 mph — the strongest on record for an Atlantic storm.
Experts, like National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, warn it would be ‘impossible’ to overstate the dangers associated with Hurricane Irma — a sentiment echoed by National Hurricane Center scientist, Taylor Trogdon, who tweeted satellite tracking of the storm with the apocalyptic caption,
“I am at a complete and utter loss for words looking at Irma’s appearance on satellite imagery.”
I am at a complete and utter loss for words looking at Irma's appearance on satellite imagery. pic.twitter.com/B0ewFyvcSv
— Taylor Trogdon (@TTrogdon) September 5, 2017
In fact, the raging system — with hurricane-strength winds extending at least 60 miles and those of a tropical storm, some 175 miles — has such force, seismometers meant to measure earthquakes have begun to record the impacts of Irma.
“Seismometer recordings from the past 48 hours on Guadeloupe show Cat. 5 #Hurricane #Irma driving closer toward the Lesser Antilles,” Stephen Hicks, a seismologist at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, tweeted.
Irma inserted herself into the record books early after rapidly structuring and developing a sharp eye, feeding on unusually warm waters of the sea — and now holds the title of strongest sustained winds of any Atlantic-formed hurricane in the history of statistic keeping.
With the close exceptions of storms formed in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico — warm water temperatures and moist air pervading both, fertile grounds for the nastiest tropical cyclones — Irma has already demonstrated the potential to blow all previous Atlantic hurricanes out of the proverbial water.
“A hurricane’s primary fuel source is warm ocean water, so warmer water provides more fuel for the storm,” noted Phil Klotzbach, research scientist at Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science, for the Daily Beast. “Anomalously high mid-level relative humidity provides the moisture necessary for thunderstorm formation, which are the building blocks of hurricanes.”
The Mercury News explained, “Four other storms have had winds that strong in the overall Atlantic region but they were in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, which are usually home to warmer waters that fuel cyclones. Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980, while 2005’s Wilma, 1988’s Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Key storm all had 185 mph winds.”
On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported, “France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity. Dutch marines who flew to three Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.”
French minister of foreign territories, Annick Girardin, opined of the impact, “We have a lot to fear for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn’t want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites … We’re preparing for the worst.”
Meteorologists and scientists have frantically adjusted computer models and forecasts to get a handle on Irma’s course, and as firmer predictions form — and while Puerto Rico this afternoon gets a first taste of the typhoon’s wrath — it appears Floridians would do well to take heed of the governor’s warning to evacuate.
Florida Governor Rick Scott warned residents Irma “is bigger than Andrew.”
“I want everybody to understand the importance of this,” he asserted in an interview Tuesday. “This could be worse [than Andrew].”
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Homestead, Florida, and proceeded to lay waste to Miami-Dade County — killing 65 people directly from the storm, as well as 43 others, and costing an adjusted $47.8 billion — as one of just three Category 5 hurricanes ever to make landfall in the United States.
Andrew demolished well over 25,000 homes and caused major damage to some 101,000 others, left millions without power or communications, stranded hundreds of thousands, ultimately forced changes in building codes and other hurricane safety measures, and sustained maximum winds of 165 mph — that’s 20 mph slower than Irma.
Miami-Dade County convened a grand jury to examine what went wrong before, during, and after that monster storm 25 years ago, which found, in part,
“The lack of adequate preparation by our community and our state was obvious. Even more obvious was the total lack of coordination that existed between the various disaster relief agencies after the hurricane had passed. No one was in charge. No one knew what to do. There was no plan. As a result, a large segment of our community that had been reduced to a ‘third world’ existence remained that way.”
Scott and a lengthy list of credible others believe Irma will break the kinds of records — damage, cost, destruction, and even casualties — that no one wants to see broken.
Monroe County, encompassing the Florida Keys and much of the southernmost tip of the state, has a mandatory evacuation order in effect for visitors and residents, alike, and additional counties ordered non-residents to leave, suggesting Floridians follow suit. Miami began evacuating disabled people and the elderly as businesspeople and homeowners raced to board windows and secure property however possible.
Scott also activated and deployed the Florida Air and Army National Guard in a limited capacity — with more troops to arrive by the end of the week — as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bolstered the effort with his state’s Guard. President Trump declared states of emergency in Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, in advance of Irma.
“Do not ignore evacuation orders,” Scott firmly demanded of residents in the still-broad area of Irma’s expected impact. “Remember: We can rebuild your home, but we cannot rebuild your life.”
Two additional systems — Jose, following on the heels of Irma, and Katia, in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico — have now been upgraded to hurricanes as of Wednesday afternoon. Meteorologists, busy with Irma, have yet to issue firm prognostications on either storm’s impact, though neither is believed to produce quite the stunning destructive power Irma is just beginning to display.
(Featured image: Credits: UWM/SSEC/CIMSS, William Straka III, NASA)