How Irma’s worst was abated

Palm Beach Daily News - - TODAY - By KIM­BERLY MILLER

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.

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