Why Sarasota Was so Lucky with Hurricane Irma

Hurricane

Hurricane Ivan, September 2004, Nokomis Beach

It could have been a real disaster! Yes, it could have.

That was our assessment, surveying our backyard in Englewood the next morning after Hurricane Irma had passed: Two large palm trees from our neighbor’s lot were leaning towards the roof of our house. It probably looked more dangerous than it was, but who wants to find that out. The root system kept them still in place, and we were hoping that no lizard would climb up those trees. That guy may have unintentionally pulled the trigger.

Additionally, hundreds of little branches and leafs littered the property, but that was not a big concern. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we inspected our house a little closer. The house had no damages at all. Everything looked just fine.

No Loss of Power

During the storm, we did never lose power. When the light was flickering for the first time we held our breath – that was it! Now we were going to sit in the dark without air

After the Storm

Condos on Manasota Beach

conditioner and a screaming wind outside. But no, that was not it. It flickered many more times. However, it never went dark. We were even able to watch TV until we went to bed.

We were tired and exhausted after all those busy days. Next morning we discovered that internet and cell phone service was dead, but who cares about cell phone and internet after such an event? At noontime, everything was up and running again. So what.

Our neighbors on the other side of the creek were not as lucky as we were. They had a power outage for a couple of hours, but they managed to survive that somehow. Oh, yes, they did. Walmart, less than 800 yards away from us, lost power, too. Their generator did not kick in as planned, and the backup generator decided to stay idle. As you can imagine, the groceries and the frozen food were in a very sad state when the employees came back to work after the two-day unintended break.

Everybody was Happy – sort of

Speaking with neighbors and other residents the day after the storm, the sense of relief was palpable. Everybody was stressed out and tired, but happy to see the light of the sun and the blue sky again.

We live in a gated golf course community in Englewood, and during the summer months the majority of the homeowners is hanging out with family somewhere north of the

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Something destroyed the window

Panhandle.

Those snowbirds leave in April and May and do usually not flock back before the first cold October wind blows; some do not even make it back before Christmas. The grandkids often demand that they stay.

So, when Irma was lurking around, there were only four neighbors on our street. In the beginning, everybody was pretty relaxed – kind of – or at least to some extent. However, that changed gradually. The closer the storm came, the more the weathermen described the possible doomsday scenario in a more expressive language. Well, when you are sitting in front of a TV getting hammered with language describing the end of the world, some people see their confidence fading away. Once the spirit is gone what is left? Fear is filling the vacuum!

Some People Chickened Out

While the prediction of the storm surge on the Weather Channel was rising from 5 to 8, after a while from 10 to 15 feet, some residents felt their blood pressure rising in equal increments, too. Not everybody is a true-blue hero. Therefore, quite a few neighbors chickened out at the very last second and left for higher ground. Some went to North Port, which doesn’t really make too much sense. The eye of the storm was about 60 square miles in size! The whole system had a diameter of 400 miles! What is a 10-mile move supposed to do? But what can you do when the amygdala, your reptile brain, suddenly takes over? The “escape reflex” is just too strong to overcome. You run. You may run right into the eye of the storm.

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Beach erosion

Inverness was another hot destination. Well, by taking into consideration the size of this monster storm again and the general direction of Irma, that was probably not a good choice either. Georgia and the Carolinas were also on many itineraries, and many residents took that route. That could have been a better choice if…..

To make a long story short: almost everybody who left the community had a far worse experience compared to what the remaining residents had. Running out of gas and finding no hotel room where some of the easier obstacles they had to deal with. Being without power for days can make your life really miserable too. It is hard to imagine how you feel without air condition and hot water. Some places further north were without power for almost a week.

Of course, some residents had to evacuate. Mandatory evacuations are always pronounced for residents in certain flood zones and mobile or manufactured homes. They stayed in shelters for many days, which was quite a different experience.

Why was the Area so Lucky? Let’s hear what a weather expert has to say:

“I’d say the whole Sarasota and Tampa Bay area was super fortunate,” says hurricane expert Dr. Jeff Masters, who from 1986-90 flew with NOAA Hurricane Hunters and in 1995 co-founded The Weather Underground, one of the best sources for information on

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A little humor is always helpful

threatening weather.

This is not to diminish the challenges faced by those still without power, business owners struggling to reopen, or property owners dealing with water damage, uprooted trees and broken windows. Two-thirds of the state was left without power. Irma will go down as the most powerful storm to hit Florida since Donna in 1960. Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler for Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia, told The New York Times that he initially estimated Irma would cause $150 billion to $200 billion in damage, but has downgraded that to $50 billion, which will still make it the fifth costliest storm in U.S. History.

Only Two Steps away from a possible Catastrophe

Masters says two critical moves made by Irma changed the scenario.

The first big break, for Floridians, at least, but certainly not Cubans, came when Irma plowed into Cuba with 160 MPH winds on Saturday. That blow weakened Irma, and though it regained some of its power, it never fully recovered.

“Had it not hit Cuba, Irma would have come roaring into Florida as a Category 5,” Masters says.

The other dose of good fortune, on Sunday, was Irma’s sudden move inland, where it hit Naples and moved north along I-75, instead of churning along the coast line. That shift greatly lessened the storm surge Irma would have created.

“You would have been seeing 10-foot storm surge in the Sarasota area, as well as Fort Myers and Tampa,” Masters says. “The damage would have been in the many billions of dollars.”

Path_of_Irma

The Keys – Marco Island – Naples – Fort Myers – Rotonda/North Port ……

Did the Forecast Models predict the Outcome?

Even though Irma’s path shifted in the days and hours before it hit Florida, Masters says the public was well served by the forecasting models, which consistently showed the entire peninsula within the cones of uncertainty.

“I’d give the modeling a grade of B-plus,” Masters says, adding that smaller shifts, such as Irma’s move 40 miles inland as it came up the state, are to be expected.”

It is interesting enough that the European model predicted this outcome already in a very early stage. But what do Europeans know about Hurricanes? Don’t they hang out smoking joints and drinking beer all day long? Funny people.

A little more Serious Information would have Helped

Well, everybody knows how it works. Those TV people need to increase the number of viewers to sell more advertisement. You could notice that the closer the storm got, the more drama was created, and the number of commercials was doubling whenever the wind speed increased by 2 knots.

You could notice the same effect whenever the storm surge was predicted to come in higher. The higher the surge the more commercials they shoved down your throat. It just

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Branches and leaves

got out of control when one weatherman told his audience with a straight face that a 10 – 15-foot wall of water was on the way, and that the height of the incoming water was measured above “street level” – not sea level. That scenario would have turned our whole town into a playground for Snook and Grouper.

This was exactly the moment when we turned our TV off, and it felt terrific. The wind was still rattling on our hurricane shutters, demanding admission. But Irma was over land and had already been downgraded from category four to category one.  When you know just a little about weather and storm systems, you could quickly figure out that this scenario was meant to rake in more advertising money.

It is always good to know the weather basics. Being a lifelong boater does help under these circumstances.