Irma barely hur­ri­cane as it hit

Sys­tem struck, but not as hard as ex­pected

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Spear Staff Writer

Irma flayed Cen­tral Florida as a hur­ri­cane mostly in name only.

In a thrash­ing last seen in 2004 with Hur­ri­cane Charley, the storm top­pled pos­si­bly thou­sands of trees; cut power to more than 1 mil­lion homes in Or­ange, Semi­nole, Lake, Osce­ola, Bre­vard and Vo­lu­sia coun­ties; flooded neigh­bor­hoods and sent sewage down streets into lakes.

Yet, for all its de­struc­tion, Irma’s cy­clonic might was min­i­mal for the re­gion; it was no Charley and had the fury of a trop­i­cal storm from Day­tona Beach to St. Pete Beach.

“We didn’t have sus­tained hur­ri­cane-force winds,” me­te­o­rol­o­gist Andrew McKaughan of the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice in Tampa said of record­ing sta­tions span­ning from his city to Or­lando. Though, he added, “tech­ni­cally it was a hur­ri­cane.”

That’s be­cause as Irma was weak­en­ing in its jour­ney across Cen­tral

Florida, the hur­ri­cane-force winds it needed to still be called a hur­ri­cane were out over the Gulf of Mex­ico.

Now, with many lights still out from Irma and cleanup across the re­gion still in full swing, Florida should keep an eye on a bud­ding trop­i­cal storm in the At­lantic, said Jeff Masters, me­te­o­rol­ogy di­rec­tor at Weather Un­der­ground, an online weather ser­vice.

“Hur­ri­canes, like ba­nanas, come in bunches, and some of them are bad,” he said.

Irma, from flat­ten­ing the Keys to swamp­ing Jack­sonville, stands as one of Florida’s cat­a­strophic storms, with more than two dozen deaths.

The storm was in­tim­i­dat­ing in Cen­tral Florida, with a mon­strous roar and blue­green flashes of power lines slap­ping to­gether.

“It sounded like shrap­nel hit­ting the house,” Britt Barnes said of wind-driven pro­jec­tiles from a fallen tree near his south Or­lando home.

With an enor­mous reach, the storm’s punch was uni­form along the In­ter­state 4 cor­ri­dor.

“The winds speeds I saw in the Or­lando area were pretty sim­i­lar to what we had over here,” me­te­o­rol­o­gist McKaughan said.

Through­out Sept. 10, Bre­vard County had six tor­na­does, Vo­lu­sia County had one and Lake County had one, all “associated” with Irma, the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice re­ported.

By 6 that evening, as Irma ap­proached from south­west Florida, its winds be­gan to ac­cel­er­ate sig­nif­i­cantly through the Or­lando area from an east­erly di­rec­tion.

Irma’s cen­ter would not reach Cen­tral Florida, but the Or­lando area was catch­ing the “dirty side,” Tony Cristaldi of the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice in Mel­bourne said of its stronger, east­ern front.

Brief winds of 50 mph or more were kick­ing up. Such gusts hap­pen from time to time with thun­der­storms, but with Irma, they would con­tinue in the Or­lando area for 14 hours.

At 1 a.m., down­town Or­lando felt its strong­est winds; a sus­tained blow of 56 mph. The city’s peak gust hit 30 min­utes later at 78 mph.

At 2 a.m. Mon­day, the storm’s cen­ter crossed Ze­phyrhills 50 miles south­west of Or­lando and well into its Cen­tral Florida trek.

The Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter said then: “… IRMA WEAK­EN­ING AS IT MOVES OVER THE WESTERN FLORIDA PENIN­SULA.” Max­i­mum sus­tained winds were 85 mph.

At 3 a.m., the oak in front of Barnes’ home crashed into power lines and a con­crete util­ity pole.

At 3:30 a.m., Leesburg’s max­i­mum sus­tained winds reached 48 mph.

By then, Irma was di­min­ish­ing steadily as it an­gled north across In­ter­state 4 near Plant City; at 5 a.m., the storm had ar­rived at Crys­tal River, 77 miles north­west of Or­lando. But as Irma sat di­rectly over that Gulf of Mex­ico coastal city, there were no hur­ri­cane winds there or any­where over Florida.

“Such winds still ex­ist over the Gulf of Mex­ico west of the cen­ter,” the hur­ri­cane cen­ter stated.

Irma’s eye was in sham­bles, roughed up by the fric­tion of cross­ing land.

The hur­ri­cane cen­ter put sus­tained winds at 75 mph, just barely stronger than a trop­i­cal storm, over the Gulf waters.

Or­lando winds were swing­ing to the north in the tail of the depart­ing Irma.

As the storm left and day­light emerged, Or­lando would find more than 400 trees down on streets, side­walks and other city prop­erty, and 180 traf­fic sig­nals dead in just one ex­am­ple of wreck­age that spanned from Win­der­mere to Win­ter Park.

And as the week came to an end, a pow­er­less Duke En­ergy cus­tomer in the south Or­lando area con­sid­ered the util­ity’s re­ported out­ages for nearly 80 per­cent of cus­tomers.

“That sounds like a se­vere in­fra­struc­ture is­sue,” Brad Bennett said. “Yes, this was a sig­nif­i­cant storm. But not as large as it could have been or what we may see in the fu­ture.”

On Aug. 13, 2004, Hur­ri­cane Charley was that larger storm. It tore through Or­lando with sus­tained winds of 85 mph and a peak gust of 105 mph.

Asked if Or­lando has since made it­self more ro­bust or re­silient, Mayor Buddy Dyer’s re­sponse fo­cused not on the city’s dura­bil­ity but on its abil­ity to get back on its feet.

“As a com­mu­nity we have weath­ered mul­ti­ple nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and tragedies over just the last year,” Dyer said. “Through all of this, our com­mu­nity con­tin­ues to work to­gether to re­store and re­cover.”

Restora­tion by elec­tric util­i­ties may prove to be the most ca­pa­ble ever in the re­gion, even as frus­tra­tion rose among nearly 94,000 cus­tomers with­out power Satur­day in Or­ange, Semi­nole, Lake, Osce­ola, Bre­vard and Vo­lu­sia coun­ties.

Since Hur­ri­cane Andrew in 1992, Florida also has im­posed more strin­gent rules for the strength of win­dows, roofs and fram­ing.

At the Goma Peace Food Store on Tampa Av­enue in west Or­lando, an ag­ing roof over gas pumps — with heavy steel fram­ing em­bed­ded in con­crete — was flat­tened. But just be­hind it, the wood fram­ing of an un­fin­ished, multi-story apart­ment build­ing was ap­par­ently un­dam­aged.

“This is crazy,” area res­i­dent Bobby Sullivan said. “How does this get tipped over,” look­ing at the roof, “and that is left stand­ing.”

The prin­ci­pal cause of out­ages, and the root of most of the area’s suf­fer­ing, is no mys­tery.

“It’s what hap­pens when you put all those miles of lines up in the trees,” a Duke En­ergy line­man said on Mon­day, climbing into his truck’s bucket hoist in Apopka.

In Pine Hills, Or­lando Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion line­man su­per­vi­sor Ja­son Reynolds said even ag­gres­sive tree trim­ming would help only to an ex­tent.

“Just look at that sy­camore over there,” he said, point­ing to a tree loom­ing over power lines along Kirk­man Av­enue. “Trim­ming it doesn’t do any­thing if it falls.”

Jean-Paul Pinelli, di­rec­tor of Florida In­sti­tute of Technology’s Wind and Hur­ri­cane Im­pact Lab­o­ra­tory, said Irma is likely to re­fuel the long-stand­ing de­bate over power lines.

“At least for the new build­ings, they are much stronger and that’s a good thing,” he said.

“But there is a real is­sue with the util­i­ties and power lines and what’s more cost ef­fec­tive; put the lines un­der­ground, which is ex­pen­sive, or just bet that ev­ery so of­ten we will have to re­pair ex­pen­sive dam­age.”

KEVIN SPEAR/STAFF

Hur­ri­cane Irma flat­tened the roof over the pumps at Goma Peace Food Store gas sta­tion on Tampa Av­enue.

JOE BUR­BANK/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

A tree — felled by the high winds of Hur­ri­cane Irma — rests atop a home and car Wed­nes­day in the Mait­land Isle neigh­bor­hood of Mai­tand.

Source: NOAA data from Iowa En­vi­ron­men­tal Mesonet

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