Irma barely hurricane as it hit
System struck, but not as hard as expected
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.”
Hurricane Irma flattened the roof over the pumps at Goma Peace Food Store gas station on Tampa Avenue.
A tree — felled by the high winds of Hurricane Irma — rests atop a home and car Wednesday in the Maitland Isle neighborhood of Maitand.