How Irma’s worst was abated
From the very first stirrings of rising air and budding thunderstorms off the coast of Africa, Hurricane Irma had a red carpet through the tropical Atlantic, an atmospheric buffet table of warm seawater and light shear to nourish its growth.
Its explosion from a tropical storm Aug. 30 to a Category 3 hurricane the next day was one for the record books. By Sept. 5, Irma was a violent Category 5 tropical cyclone with 185 mph winds — a power it would hold for a whopping 37 consecutive hours.
Irma decimated the northern Leeward Islands, raking over Barbuda and the Virgin Islands before setting on a furious path toward Florida.
But when the vulnerable peninsula faced worst-case scenarios that buzzed the powerful storm first up one side then the other, Mother Nature stepped in to tweak Irma’s plan.
By the grace of Cuba’s northern coast, which was abraded by Irma before the strong Cat 4 hurricane reached the Florida Strait, and a tongue of dry air sucked into its massive, state-swallowing wind field, the storm weakened slightly and couldn’t regain strength before making its first landfall Sunday morning at Cudjoe Key.
A subtle wiggle west that made Marco Island its second landfall target kept the deepest and deadliest storm surge away from Naples, Fort Myers and Tampa as fewer of the counterclockwise lashing winds were over the Gulf of Mexico.
“There are just so many little subtle things that can make all the difference,” said Jonathan Erdman, a senior digital meteorologist at Weather.com. “After it hit the Keys, it took a more due-north path instead of north-northwest and that drove the eyewall ashore near Marco Island, which started weakening it.”
At the same time, however, that western wobble put the east coast metro areas within closer reach of Irma’s 80-mile span for hurricane-force winds and 220-mile stretch of tropical-storm-force winds. It also meant more flooding in Jacksonville, which suffered inundation from Irma’s southeast squall.
Gusts of 91 mph were recorded at Palm Beach International Airport on Sunday evening as the most potent part of Irma to reach Palm Beach County blew through.
”I think Floridians have had a good display of how if you are on the east side of a hurricane, you can be much worse off than on the west side,” said Dan Kottlowski, a hurricane expert at AccuWeather. “Hurricane Matthew passed about the same distance away from you that Irma did, but Matthew was to the east.”
The highest wind gust in Palm Beach County from Hurricane Matthew last year was estimated at 67 mph in Juno Beach.
Throughout the county, Irma’s gusty winds, along with sustained speeds of 58 mph at PBIA, uprooted trees, tore streetlights from their perches, ripped signs from the ground, shredded shrubbery and cracked palm trees in half.
Kaylie Atteo of West Palm Beach was shocked to find five towering shade trees on South Olive Avenue stretched across the road, their roots lifting up sidewalks as Irma’s winds caught their canopies and took them down.
”I wrapped up my furniture and put it up on blocks because we just didn’t know what to expect,” said Atteo. “But I never thought these trees would go down because the storm went so far west.”
Atteo spent the night in Boynton Beach with her mother, but Steven Smilack, whose home is next to one of the massive downed trees, stayed. With shutters on his two-story home, he said, he never heard the trees go over and didn’t know they had fallen until the next morning.
”We just came out and saw what you are seeing,” he said.
By Monday morning, Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm.