ORLANDO, Fla. – Five years ago, we were making preparations for Hurricane Irma to make landfall along the west coast and travel right through the heart of Central Florida.
The massive hurricane made a total of seven landfalls, four of which as a category 5 hurricane causing devastation over the northwestern Caribbean Islands.
Irma began as a tropical wave off the west coast of Africa on Aug. 27, 2017, quickly strengthening to a tropical depression just two days later. Six hours after reaching tropical depression status, tropical storm Irma was named.
Thirty hours later, on Aug. 31, the system was deemed a hurricane. The next day, Irma was a major hurricane after increasing 80 mph in a 48-hour period of time.
Irma kept strengthening crossing the tropical Atlantic, after going through eyewall replacement, racing toward the Leeward Islands. After yet another round of rapid intensification, Irma had reached a maximum intensity of 178 mph winds, reaching a category 5 status by Sept. 5. The monster storm was just 70 miles east-southeast of Barbuda.
On the morning of Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma made its first landfall as a category 5 hurricane over Barbuda. The tiny island, 316 times smaller than Florida, didn’t weaken the massive hurricane.
That same day, just before noon, Irma made its second category 5 landfall over St. Martin with the same wind speed and pressure as Barbuda. Irma maintained the intensity as it made its third landfall of the day in Virgin Gorda, part of the British Virgin Islands, at 4:30 that afternoon. Only then had the storm weakened a little bit before revealing concentric eyewalls with double the maximum wind.
Irma remained a category 5 major hurricane, but now with a larger wind field despite the little weakening. Irma maintained category 5 intensity for 60 hours which, according to the National Hurricane Center, was the second longest period on record, before making a fourth landfall.
The massive hurricane moved over Little Inagua Island in the Bahamas on the morning of Sept. 8 as a category 4 major hurricane with 155 mph winds. As the storm continued to move toward the northern Cuban coast, it picked up intensity over warm water, once again reaching the category 5 threshold in the same day.
Irma made its fifth landfall over Cayo Romano, Cuba on the Sept. 9 with 166 mph winds. According to hurricane records, this was the first category 5 landfall in Cuba since Huracan sin Precedentes made landfall in 1924. As Irma moved over the Cuban Keys, the interaction with land started to weaken the storm, reaching a category 2 later that day.
It wasn’t long before Hurricane Irma was moving over the warm waters of the Florida Straights where it intensified once again. On the morning of Sept. 10, Irma was back to a category 4 major hurricane just 55 miles south-southeast of Key West.
The sixth landfall happened at 1 p.m. that day over Cudjoe Key. Weakened by vertical shear, Hurricane Irma was a category 3 major hurricane as is made its seventh landfall in just 4 days over Marco Island, Florida. The 115 mph winds battered the barrier reef island the evening of the 10th as the powerful hurricane continued a path generally northward.
On Sept. 11, the category 2 hurricane barreled through the Ft. Meyers/Naples area of southwest Florida, reaching Central Florida by 6 that morning as a category 1 hurricane. Although Irma was weaker, the wind field was very large. Tropical storm-force winds extended from the center of Irma outward 360 miles. The image below is a forecast image showing the potential wind field expected to reach Central Florida in 2017.
By noon, Irma was a tropical storm nearing Gainesville before it moved into Georgia and Alabama on the 12th. The next day, the storm finally was a remnant low, falling apart over southeast Missouri.
Hurricane Irma’s strong winds, embedded tornadoes and heavy rain brought a total of over $77 billion in damages. Even worse, 47 lives were lost due to the wind, heavy rain and high surf. Most of those deaths were in the Caribbean Islands. Ten deaths were reported in the United States. Additionally, 82 lives were lost due to indirect impacts from Hurricane Irma, 77 in Florida. Hundreds more were hurt in the aftermath of the storm.
The flooding was immense. From Sept. 9-12, Ft. Pierce recorded 21.66″ of rainfall. Between 10-15 inches of rainfall was common across Florida and the Keys. Several Orange county residents were rescued from flooded homes.
Of the 25 tornadoes spawned during Hurricane Irma, 21 of those happened in Florida. One tornado touched down in Mims as a strong EF-2 uprooting trees and damaging homes. Another touched down in Merritt Island as an EF-1 with maximum winds reaching 109 mph, damaging several homes and a church.
About 6 million residents evacuated from coastal areas before Hurricane Irma arrived. Wind and water damage in the United States totaled $50 billion. Hurricane Irma became the fifth costliest hurricane to impact the United States behind Katrina in 2005, Harvey and Maria both in 2017, and Sandy in 2012.
In Brevard county alone, 7,000 homes were damaged with 450 of those destroyed or hit with major damage. In Osceola County, 4,000 structures were damaged with an estimated $100 million in damage county-wide.
Orange groves in central and southwest Florida took a huge hit, reporting $760 million in damage. Widespread tree and powerline damage was reported statewide, while in Puerto Rico the damage was so extensive that electricity and water supplies were impacted for several days.
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