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Just days after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and parts of Louisiana, leaving behind unprecedented destruction, an even stronger tropical cyclone was reported heading towards Florida. Irma, the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history, first brought chaos to the Caribbean, devastating islands like Barbuda and St. Martin on September 6, where it struck with Category 5 winds that at times reached up to 185 mph.
More than two dozen people perished, and over 90 percent of the structures were razed to the ground. Images released by NASA’s Earth Observatory show the once lush green islands appearing brown and barren, possibly because the high winds stripped them of all vegetation.
But Irma was just getting started. After grazing Cuba and Puerto Rico, the hurricane, now downgraded slightly to a Category 4 storm, then raged on the U.S. East Coast where it made landfall twice — the first in the Florida Keys at 9:10 a.m Sunday, September 10, and then a few hours later, on Marco Island along the state’s southwestern coast.
The powerful storm, which brought gusty winds of up to 145 mph and sudden tornadoes, downed several power lines and drenched some areas with as much as 16-inches of rain, causing dangerous flash floods. To make matters worse, Irma, which resulted in one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history, unexpectedly veered west, hitting the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, which has not been in the direct path of a hurricane in over a century.
As of Tuesday September 12, almost 6.5 million people across the “Sunshine State” remain without power, and overwhelmed utility companies are not sure when it will be restored. The low-lying Keys, which suffered some of the worst damage, have limited electricity, gas, and water. Though residents of the Middle Keys, Lower Keys, and Miami were allowed to return home this morning, over 100,000 Florida residents remain in shelters and millions more are slowly trickling back after taking refuge in other states.
Though it has now been downgraded to a tropical depression, Irma continues to wreak havoc as it travels north. It has flooded downtown Charleston, South Carolina and left over 800,000 people without power in Georgia. The state’s coastal areas, including Savannah and Brunswick, are under a storm surge warning of 4-6 feet, while evacuees from the neighboring Tybee Island are not being allowed to return home due to extensive flooding.
It will take a few months before the full extent of the damage inflicted by Irma can be accurately assessed. However, experts estimate it will cost upward of $300 billion or almost double the $180 billion estimated to rebuild and repair the destruction left behind by Harvey.
While it will take time for affected regions to fully recover, it should be some consolation that the conditions that result in powerful hurricanes like Irma are fairly infrequent. According to experts, a hurricane’s strength is determined by three factors: water temperature, concentration of moisture in the atmosphere, and wind shear. The former two give the storm energy, while a low wind shear prevents it from dissipating. While it is rare to get these three conditions at the same time, that is exactly what happened with Irma. Water temperatures have been about one or two degrees higher this year than normal, the air was laden with moisture, and the wind shear was almost zero! To make matters worse, Irma encountered relatively little landmass on which to unleash its fury as it made its way towards Florida.
This is not the first time Florida has suffered a hurricane of this magnitude. In 1925, a young Miami was hit with what was likely a Category 4, killing 375 people. 25 years ago, Hurricane Andrew, the worst storm in the state’s history, resulted in $26.5 billion of damage and 15 deaths. However, as South Florida’s population and cities continue to grow, future hurricanes pose much larger threats. Though there is not much that can be done to prevent nature’s wrath we can all help by donating money, time, or resources to assist those who have been displaced.
Resources: theverge.com,latimes.com. nola.com, thevox.com