Hur­ri­cane Irma’s dev­as­ta­tion

The Caribbean lies in ru­ins and Florida in the USA licks her wounds af­ter record-smash­ing Hur­ri­cane Irma


HUR­RI­CANE Har­vey had barely blown it­self out when an even more men­ac­ing phe­nom­e­non was on its way: Irma the In­cred­i­ble, a record-bust­ing cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­cane pack­ing the kind of power the world hadn’t seen for decades.

First it laid waste to a string of Caribbean is­lands, toss­ing boats around like toys and rip­ping build­ings apart be­fore mak­ing a bee­line for Florida. Au­thor­i­ties didn’t mince their words when it came to Florida res­i­dents: get out now or you’re on your own.

By the time the mon­ster hit the Caribbean, Irma had swollen to an area larger than France. The is­lands and the south of the United States are no stranger to hur­ri­canes. But this was some­thing else.

Irma was no re­specter of priv­i­lege. While count­less is­lan­ders lost their homes, Bri­tish bil­lion­aire Richard Bran­son’s lux­ury home on Necker Is­land in the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands was also de­stroyed. The 67-year-old ty­coon holed him­self up in his wine cel­lar to ride out the storm, then trav­elled to Puerto Rico to co­or­di­nate a re­build­ing plan and help re­lief ef­forts.

Dra­matic be­fore and af­ter pic­tures show the ex­tent of the dis­as­ter and the mag­ni­tude of the re­pair ef­forts needed.

Why this one was so deadly

Irma was the first storm in recorded his­tory to main­tain top winds of nearly 300km/h for 37 straight hours.

The hur­ri­cane was so pow­er­ful it tem­po­rar­ily sucked the ocean away from beaches in the Ba­hamas and Florida, strand­ing marine life on the shore.

Evac­uees in Florida were warned not to re­turn home af­ter the wind died down be­cause strong storm surges of up to 5m were pre­dicted around the coast.

Like many At­lantic hur­ri­canes, Irma orig­i­nated near the Cape Verde is­lands off Africa’s north­west coast. Cape Verde storms have the ca­pac­ity to be­come su­per­charged be­cause of the long trek they make across the equa­to­rial At­lantic be­fore run­ning into land and weak­en­ing, says me­te­o­rol­o­gist Neal Dorst.

A per­fect storm of in­gre­di­ents con­spired to turn Irma into the beast she be­came. A com­bi­na­tion of weak winds in the At­lantic, warm ocean tem­per­a­tures and the fact that the core of the storm was able to re­main over the open wa­ter with­out mak­ing land­fall all led to the hur­ri­cane’s cat­a­strophic power.

The wind shear over the At­lantic Ocean has been low this year, com­pared with pre­vi­ous years. Wind shear, a change in wind speed or di­rec­tion with height, tends to rip a hur­ri­cane apart. When con­di­tions are rel­a­tively tran­quil, “cy­clo­ge­n­e­sis” can oc­cur – which ba­si­cally means a hur­ri­cane can form.

With ex­cep­tion­ally low wind shear over the At­lantic and Caribbean, the stage was set months ago for a ter­ri­fy­ingly ac­tive hur­ri­cane sea­son.

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