WASHINGTON—Irma, which flattened some Caribbean islands and enveloped nearly all of Florida in its fury, no longer exists. The open Atlantic’s most powerful hurricane on record finally sputtered out as an ordinary rainstorm over Ohio and Indiana.
Irma’s confirmed death toll is 61 and still rising, 38 in the Caribbean and 23 in the United States. In the US alone, nearly 7 million people were told to evacuate, and 13 million Floridians were left without power in hot, steamy weather.
This storm grew so immensely powerful over warmer-than-normal Atlantic water that it devastated the first islands in its path. Its gargantuan size—two Hurricane Andrews could fit inside it—spread so much fear that people all over the Florida peninsula upended their lives to flee.
“This was a large, extremely dangerous catastrophic hurricane,” National Hurricane Center Spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said on Wednesday, when he declared the storm over.
Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach put it simpler: “Irma was a beast.”
Irma generated as much accumulated energy in a dozen days as an entire six-month hurricane season would in an average year, Klotzbach calculated.
Just 30 hours after it became a tropical storm on August 30, Irma was a major Category 3 hurricane. By September 4 it had intensified into a Category 4, with 210 kilometers-per-hour winds, and it wasn’t near done.
It became a Category 5 storm the next day with top winds of nearly 300 kph, the highest ever recorded in the open Atlantic. Only one storm whirled faster—Hurricane Allen reached 305 kph in 1980 over the normally warm Gulf of Mexico—but Irma held its ferociously high speeds for 37 hours, a new global record for tropical cyclones. It beat Supertyphoon Haiyan, which also reached nearly 300 kph before killing more than 6,000 people in the Philippines. Irma ultimately spent 78 hours as a Category 5, the longest in 85 years for Atlantic hurricanes.
Irma’s entire path, from its birth off Africa to its death over the Ohio Valley, stayed within the cone of the probable track forecast by the National Hurricane Center.
Irma claimed its first victim when it was still far off, sending a “monster wave” to drown a teen-aged surfer in Barbados. Then it hit the Leeward Islands in full fury, sweeping a 2-year-old boy to his death after tearing the roof from his home.
Irma bullied through much of the Caribbean—Antigua, Saint Martin, Saint Barts, Anguilla, the US and British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas. It narrowly skirted Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It turned lush tropical playgrounds into blasted-out landscapes, littered with splintered lumber, crumpled sheet metal and shattered lives. In Saint Martin, 15 people were killed.
Irma was still a Category 5 when it raked Cuba’s coast, the first hurricane that size to hit the storm-prone island since 1924. At least 10 people died there, despite massive evacuations. And by moving briefly over land, it may have spared Florida a tougher punch.
More important, the system slowed, delaying its turn north and steering its center over Florida’s west coast, which is less populated and less densely developed than the east. It also allowed dry air and high winds from the southwest to flow into Irma, taking a bite out of the storm and even tearing the southwest eyewall apart for a while.
Irma was more vulnerable, but by no means weak. A Category 4 storm with 210-kph winds when it slammed into Cudjoe Key, it tied for history’s seventh strongest hurricane to make US landfall, based on its central pressure. With Harvey’s swamping of Texas, this is the first year two Category 4 storms hit the US.
The Keys were devastated. Federal officials estimated that a quarter of the homes were destroyed, and hardly any escaped damage. Roofs seemed peeled off by can-openers; power poles were nowhere to be seen.
Irma was back over water as it closed in on mainland Florida, weakening still but spreading much wider—to more than 400 miles (640 km) in girth—whipping the entire peninsula with winds of 62 kph or more. It pushed its highest storm surge, 10 feet onto Florida’s southwestern coast, while causing some of its worst flooding in northeast Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, far from Irma’s center.
Irma’s second US landfall was on Marco Island, near where Wilma hit in 2005. By then, Irma was a still-major Category 3, with 185 kph winds, but weakening fast. The worst of its fury somehow missed the Tampa Bay area, where homes were not nearly as flooded as those in faraway Jacksonville. Irma then sloshed through Georgia and Alabama as a tropical storm, blowing down tall trees and power lines, before dissipating on Tuesday over Tennessee and Ohio.
Image credits: AP