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Once again, the Big Bend area -- and Jefferson County specifically -- dodged the bullet when it came to Hurricane Irma, a deathly and erratic monster storm that caused widespread havoc across the Caribbean and much of the Florida peninsula.
Fortunately for Jefferson County, Irma had weakened to a tropical storm by the time it hit this area on Monday morning, Sept. 11. What’s more, its eye veered northeast at the last moment, so that its passed some 30 miles east of Monticello, across Madison, before sweeping into Georgia and the Southeastern Unites States.
Even so, sustained winds of 40 mph with gusts of up to 60 mph and windswept rains lashed the area, uprooting trees, downing power lines and causing property damage. The damage, however, was nowhere near what local officials had feared and what experts had predicated, had the Irma hit here as a category-1 storm as expected.
Indeed, projections were that the storm would carry sustained winds of between 70 and 80 mph and gusts of between 90 and 100 mph when it arrived in the Big Bend area. Consider that Hermine, which did extensive damage to the area in September 2016, had sustained winds of 55 mph and gusts of 80 mph.
According to the information available on Tuesday morning from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management (JCEM), Irma’s damage here mostly consisted of toppled trees, broken tree limbs and downed power lines.
The JCEM specifically reported 338 downed trees or broken limbs, 224 downed power lines and one structure hit by a fallen tree. No injuries were reported as of Tuesday morning, but 6,092 customers were left without electricity, 2,682 of them Duke Energy customers and 3,410 Tri-County Electric customers.
In adjacent Leon County, meanwhile, 56,000 customers were reported without electricity after the storm, and across the state, the number without electricity was reported at 6.5 million.
As of Wednesday morning, Duke Energy was informing the public via its public relations office that full energy restoration for this part of the state -- including Jefferson and Madison counties -- wouldn’t occur until midnight Sunday, Sept. 17. The problem, the company said, was with the main feeder lines coming into the Drifton substation. Even so, power had been restored to parts of Monticello by Thursday morning.
The JCEM reported that 200 or more local resident sought refuge from the storm at the high school, the designated shelter. Additionally, two churches, in Lloyd and Wacissa respectively, opened their doors to evacuees as temporary shelters.
Only a few businesses were opened in Monticello on Tuesday, and these were operating off generators, the Monticello News among them. On Tuesday afternoon, the Monticello Police Department had to direct traffic around the courthouse circle because U.S. 19 and U.S. 90 became backed up with traffic from evacuees returning south.
Earlier, on Saturday morning, Sept. 10, with Irma’s trajectory beginning to threaten the Florida Keys and Florida’s West Coast, the JCEM ordered a mandatory evacuation of Jefferson County residents living in low lying areas and in mobile or modular homes. This was because of the expectation of storm surge, never mind the many tornadoes that the storm was spawning.
On Thursday, Sept. 7, the Jefferson County Commission, acting in concert with Governor Rick Scott’s earlier declaration of a statewide state of emergency, declared a local state of emergency. Which declaration basically gave Sheriff David Hobbs, County Coordinator Parrish Barwick and other department heads whose operations would be responsible for the pre-and-post hurricane preparations and rescue and recovery efforts full authority to take whatever measures they deemed necessary to accomplish their missions. At the time the commission issued the declaration, Irma, a category-5 storm, was still churning in the Atlantic, its course uncertain.
Hobbs requested the local emergency declaration, telling commissioners that when the time came to act, he would do whatever was necessary to safeguard persons and property regardless of the financial or other consequences, as would undoubtedly others of the county’s emergency services personnel. It would be helpful, however, if the authority to do so were granted upfront, he said.
Hobbs was unusually somber, and his words to commissioners were sobering relative to the storm. He told the officials that while he was generally an optimistic person, he had serious concerns about Irma and its potential impact here. At the time, the possibility of a category-4 hurricane striking the region wasn’t farfetched.
“I usually don’t worry, but I’m worried now,” Hobbs said, or words to that effect.
Hobbs wasn’t alone in his concern. At the time, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) was warning that Irma had the potential to be catastrophic, and the Governor and other state officials were urging Floridians to evacuate the Florida Keys and South Florida.
As it was, Irma is reported to have resulted in one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history, with an estimated 5.6 million Floridians relocating to other parts of the state or to neighboring Georgia, Alabama and even as far as South Carolina. The evacuation caused major traffic snarls on highways such as I-75 and I-95, led to fuel shortages in some areas of the state, and filled hotels and motels to capacity across Florida and nearby states.
Since its formation in the Atlantic, Irma seemingly received relentless and unprecedented media coverage. Its notoriety understandably derived in large part from the storm’s magnitude and the fact that it came right on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, a category-4 storm that caused widespread inundation, loss of life and property damage in Houston, TX.
Barely was Harvey out of the picture then Irma was threatening islands in the Caribbean and potentially Florida. And as the days passed, the storm, called one of the deadliest and longest-lived, wreaked havoc across many Caribbean islands, including Antigua and Barbuda, St. Martin and St. Barts, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, where it struck as a category-5.
On Sunday morning, the storm took a northward turn toward the Florida Keys and Florida’s West Coast, putting it on track to strike the Big Bend region by Monday morning. Irma made its first landfall on U.S. soil as a category-4 storm at 9 a.m. Sunday on Cudjoe Key in the Keys. It made its second U.S. landfall as a category-3 storm at 3:35 p.m. on Marco Island just south of Naples.
From there the storm tracked northward, hugging the coast and threatening the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, where it was feared it would create life-threatening storm surges. All the while, the storm’s massiveness ensured that it also raked the east coast, all the way from Miami to Jacksonville, which experienced unprecedented flooding.
By 2 a.m. Monday, Irma’s winds and rain bands were beginning to assail the Big Bend area, and by daylight, the winds and rains were intensifying, with the wind gusts reaching 60 mph here. As which point the JCEM issued an advisory warning residents, and drivers in particular, not to venture out.
“Weather conditions are not favorable,” the advisory read.
It asked residents to remain indoors and allow law enforcement, Fire/Rescue, road and street crews and others time to assess the damage and begin the restoration efforts.
At the time, Irma was reported to be north-northeast of Cedar Key and moving in a westerly direction toward Tallahassee, with the eye expected to cross the area sometime in the afternoon. By 9 a.m., however, vehicular traffic around the courthouse circle was relatively steady, if not quite normal, despite the strong winds and rain.
All the while, city and county cleanup crews were on alert and keeping the roads and streets cleared of fallen trees and debris. As the JCEM received reports of downed trees, personnel there communicated the information to the crews, which rushed out to cut up the downed trees and clear the roadways.
By noon Monday, Florida Emergency Management Agency was reporting that the center of the weakened storm was 70 miles east of Tallahassee and that assessment and recovery efforts were beginning.
Irma, according to the experts, was one of the largest, longest-lived and most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history. The storm spanned more than 400 miles at its widest, almost twice the width of peninsular Florida, and had sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts of nearly 200 mph at its peak.
Irma’s uncertain path from the start further added to the anxiety, with models projecting the storm would hit Florida’s east coast, others projecting it would go up the state’s spine, and yet others showing it would hit Florida’s west coast or possibly cross into the Gulf and regain strength.
The storm also marked the first time on record that two category-4 hurricanes hit the continental United States in the same year. At least 68 deaths were attributed to the storm, and the damage was in the billions when the Caribbean and the United States are taken into account.
Here are some other weather records that Irma broke, as gleaned from the Washington Post:
Irma’s sheer size and reach -- hurricane-force winds that extended approximately 80 miles from its center and its tropical storm winds that extended out 220 miles imperiled the entire peninsula. Mind, Florida is about 360 miles wide across the panhandle but less than half that width across much of the middle of the state.
More than 6.5 million Floridians -- a little more than three in 10 residents statewide -- were ordered to evacuate before Irma’s outer bands even began to batter the state.
By Sunday afternoon, according to authorities, more than 530 shelters were housing in excess of 116,000 people across the state.
16 million people potentially were without power in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the most of any hurricane on record. Include Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and that number rises to 17 million.
The peak wind gust in Naples was 142 mph. Other top gusts included 130 mph in Marco Island, 120 mph in Big Pine Key, 111 mph in Puerto Rico, 99 mph at Miami International Airport and 86 mph in Jacksonville.
The peak wind gust recorded outside the United States was 159 mph in Falla, Cuba. It’s reported that Barbuda, in the northern Lesser Antilles, clocked a gust of 155 mph before its wind sensor failed.
Irma’s peak maximum sustained wind as it approached the northern Lesser Antilles was 185 mph. This tied as the second-most-intense Atlantic hurricane with Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane. It trailed only Hurricane Allen in 1980, which had winds of 190 mph.
The storm surge on Amelia Island (Fernandina Beach) was 7 to 8 feet. Other storm surge included 6 feet in Jacksonville, 5 feet in Naples and 4 feet in Miami.
The highest rainfall total in the United States was reported as 16 inches in Fort Pierce, FL. Other top totals included 12 inches in Gainesville, 12 inches in Naples, 11 inches in Jacksonville, and 9 inches in Orlando.
The storm maintained maximum wind speeds of at least 180 mph for 37 hours, longer than any storm on record. The previous record holder was Super Typhoon Haiyan (24 hours).
The storm pressure dropped to 914 millibars on Sept. 5 (the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm), ranking it as the lowest of any storm on record outside the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico in the Atlantic basin. Irma’s landfall pressure of 929 millibars in the Florida Keys was also the lowest for any U.S. landfalling hurricane since Katrina (920 millibars) and for a Florida landfall since Andrew (922 millibars).
The storm remained a category-5 hurricane for three days, the longest since weather satellites began monitoring weather systems in 1966.
ECB Photos by Laz Aleman, Sept. 11, 2017
(1) City and county road crews and even citizens worked quickly to clear roads of fallen trees and debris, evident by this cleared pine on Main Avenue. Note the downed power line under the tree.
(2) Tree limbs and storm debris littered streets, roads and properties everywhere in the city and the county in the immediate aftermath of the storm on Monday afternoon, Sept. 11.
(3) Michael Taylor, a county resident who works for a tree cutting service, didn’t wait for work crews to clear his road but used his small tractor to clear Main Avenue of trees and debris in the storm’s aftermath.
(4) Despite the high number of pines and other trees that the storm downed, most fell shy of structures, with the exception of one reported incident where a tree hit a house.
(5) This city dweller had the misfortune to have a pine tree fall on his or her vehicle. Fortunately the tree wasn’t the biggest.
(6) City streets were deserted and debris laden in the wake of the storm. Even so, it wasn’t long before vehicular traffic picked up and some normalcy was restored.
(7) On Tuesday afternoon, the Monticello Police department had to direct traffic around the courthouse when long lines of vehicles began baking up on U.S. 19 and 90 from evacuees making their way back south.
(8) Looking west from the courthouse circle on Tuesday afternoon, the eastbound traffic on U.S. 90 stretched as far back as the eye could see with evacuees heading home.