Life and death of Irma: 2 weeks of fury and devastation end

September 14, 2017 by Seth Borenstein
Tommy Nevitt carries Miranda Abbott, 6, through floodwater caused by Hurricane Irma on the west side of Jacksonville, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11 2017. (Dede Smith/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

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 U.S. 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 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 Aug. 30, Irma was a major Category 3 hurricane. By Sept. 4 it had intensified into a Category 4, with 130 mph (210 kph) winds, and it wasn't near done.

A woman with her two children walk past debris left by Hurricane Irma in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. The storm ravaged such lush resort islands as St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

It became a Category 5 storm the next day with top winds of 185 mph (nearly 300 kph), the highest ever recorded in the open Atlantic. Only one storm whirled faster—Hurricane Allen reached 190 mph (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 Typhoon Haiyan, which also reached 185 mph (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, St. Martin, St. Barts, Anguilla, the U.S. 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 St. Martin, 15 people were killed.

View of the partially buildings destroyed by Irma during the visit of France's President Emmanuel Macron in the French Caribbean islands of St. Martin, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. Macron is in the French-Dutch island of St. Martin, where 10 people were killed on the French side and four on the Dutch. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, Pool)

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 importantly, 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 130 mph (210 kph) winds when it slammed into Cudjoe Key, it tied for history's seventh strongest hurricane to make U.S. landfall, based on its central pressure. With Harvey's swamping of Texas, this is the first year two Category 4 storms hit the United States.

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.

Juan Antonio Higuey shows his destroyed home at Cold Bay community after the passage of Hurricane Irma, in St. Martin, Monday, September 11, 2017. Irma cut a path of devastation across the northern Caribbean, leaving thousands homeless after destroying buildings and uprooting trees. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

Irma was back over water as it closed in on mainland Florida, weakening still but spreading much wider—to more than 400 miles (640 kilometers) in girth—whipping the entire peninsula with winds of 39 mph (62 kph) or more. It pushed its highest storm surge, 10 feet (more than 3 meters), 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 U.S. landfall was on Marco Island, near where Wilma hit in 2005. By then, Irma was a still-major Category 3, with 115 mph (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 Tuesday over the nation's interior.

In this undated photo provided on Sunday Sept. 10, 2017, by the British Ministry of Defence, cars that have been turned to wrecks by Hurricane Irma on the British Virgin Islands. The wild isolation that made St. Barts, St. Martin, Anguilla and the Virgin Islands vacation paradises has turned them into cutoff, chaotic nightmares in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which left 22 people dead, mostly in the Leeward Islands. (MOD via AP)

This Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 photo shows storm damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on the British island of Anguilla. Irma weakened to Category 3 storm with 125 mph winds on Saturday, but will likely regain strength before slamming Florida. (Vanessa C Thompson via AP)
In this undated photo provided on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 by the British Ministry of Defence, Royal Marines deliver aid and provide support to the islanders of Jost Van Dkye, British Virgin Islands. The team helped to deliver essential aid utilising a small boat to support this isolated community of just 300 people. Britain sent a navy ship and almost 500 troops to the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos islands. (MOD via AP)
Lucita Leonce 71, complains in front of her home flooded by heavy rains brought on by Hurricane Irma, in Fort-Liberte, Haiti, Friday Sept. 8, 2017. Irma rolled past the Dominican Republic and Haiti and battered the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday with waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters). ( AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Locals affected by Hurricane Irma line up to collect drinking water in Isabela de Sagua, Cuba, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. The powerful storm ripped roofs off houses, collapsed buildings and flooded hundreds of thousands of coastline after cutting a trail of destruction across the Caribbean. Cuban officials warned residents to watch for even more flooding over the next few days. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
This Sept. 10, 2017, file photo shows people walking on Old Tampa Bay, in Tampa, Fla. Hurricane Irma's devastating storm surge came with weird twists that scientists attribute to the storm's girth, path and some geographic quirks. They can explain why the highest water levels observed from Irma were in faraway corners, while places closer to the eye experienced a rare reverse surge. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
A house slides into the Atlantic Ocean in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (Gary Lloyd McCullough/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
People move through flooded streets in Havana after the passage of Hurricane Irma, in Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. The powerful storm ripped roofs off houses, collapsed buildings and flooded hundreds of miles of coastline after cutting a trail of destruction across the Caribbean. Cuban officials warned residents to watch for even more flooding over the next few days. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

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1 / 5 (4) Sep 14, 2017
Hurricanes are like forest fires, both self-perpetuate so long as there is fuel available. Pouring water on a fire prevents the fire's access to fuel. Pouring oil onto the water under a hurricane smothers the storm. I've done this twice and attenuated Matthew and now Irma. On Wednesday, September 6th, I poured 216 gallons of soybean and canola oil around the island of Key West. The oil spread out to cover 129.6 square miles of ocean. This deployment diminished the storm, not the Cuban Mountains. We did not dodge a bullet. We were not "lucky". Somebody, me, took action to extinguish the self-perpetuating system that is a hurricane.
Please send me $50,000,000.00 so I can nix the next. 263 182 817 10050001518042
5 / 5 (2) Sep 15, 2017
See for an in-depth criticism of Bubba's delusional claims.
1 / 5 (3) Sep 15, 2017
Was Benjamin Franklin delusional? B. Franklin, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. London, 1774, 64, 445. Note, he was not using fossil fuel motor oil, you simpleton.
5 / 5 (3) Sep 15, 2017
Was Benjamin Franklin delusional?

I agree...someone who posts a demand for cash on a science site's comment sections isn't delusional.
He's crossed the insanity horizon and is still accelerating.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 15, 2017
Desperation is not the same as delusion. Just read Franklin's article, you incompetent imbeciles.
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 15, 2017
Bubba, oiling the waters is not a good idea, because the oil does damage.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2017
Desperation is not the same as delusion. Just read Franklin's article, you incompetent imbeciles.

Who wrote most of the unattributed poetry in "Dead Poets Society"?
1 / 5 (1) Sep 25, 2017
Vegetable oil does no damage to the ocean. It is the equivalent of feeding pigeons in the park or pets in your garden.
Yes, I wrote the stupid poems. They weren't all that bad. I also wrote the props seen in the film, they're in my handwriting, just like the letters in Back to the Future, the notebook in K-PAX, the doodles in E.T. (shown to the camera by Elliot's teacher) with my name at the top left (VHS only). So what, I got to know Stevie Spielberg pretty well in my youth. Avatar, Titanic, 6th Sense, Signs, Phantom Menace, Interstellar, Gravity, the Martian, are my stories. I invented the Jedi, the Pirate Code, and The Force, too, wrote the speeches in Braveheart, Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact, V for Vendetta, so what?
1 / 5 (1) Sep 25, 2017
so what?
Just getting you to show how delusional you are. Thanks.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2017
Yes, it is uncommon for a scientist to be involved with Hollywood types. However, that is my name on any VHS copy of E.T. on the doodles shown to the camera by Elliot's teacher just before the frogs are released. (I was trying to save Spielberg some money by providing some ideas for publicity posters at the time.) Why don't you go take a look? Slow it down, it's only there for a few frames. Or is insulting people your only motive here? Whatever your motives for your insults, it won't compensate for ignorance, superstition, and stupidity. Will it?

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