BY KATE TURNER ‘21
Hurricane Irma was the most intense Atlantic storm to make landfall in America since Katrina in 2005. The hurricane developed near the Cape Verde Islands in late August and grew to a Category 3 storm shortly after its creation. It made its slow but devastating way up the Atlantic Ocean, reaching Category 5 on Sept. 5 and growing to peak intensity on the next day. During its time in Category 5, Irma devastated the Caribbean Islands in its path, including Barbuda, Saint Martin, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Cuba.
Irma had weakened to Category 4 when it reached the Florida Keys, still causing catastrophic damage with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph. It weakened again before it reached the American mainland. Irma then hooked west of its expected trajectory, heading in the direction of Tampa instead of Miami, as Florida scrambled to protect its citizens from the hurricane’s new direction.
“To look on the map, it looked like Florida had been swallowed up,” said Alexa Gonzalez ’18, a resident of Miami. “That was probably the biggest impression that you gained from seeing the trajectories.”
“I’ve been through hurricanes,” Gonzalez added, “I’ve grown up and been through the whole weeks without power and all that, so definitely it’s something you grow up with. Even as a kid you get kind of excited, because it’s a day off from school, or a couple days off from school. I think when you get older is when you think about how dangerous the effects will be. But it’s pretty regular. You learn how to live with it.”
When asked ifthis familiarity with hurricanes prompted many Florida residents to stay in their homes despite evacuation orders, Gonzalez nodded. “That’s difficult,” she said. “It’s really difficult because I think it’s hard when people have lived there so long knowing how to prepare for a hurricane, but every storm is very different, and that’s kind of how we always talk about it. Every hurricane is another beast in itself.”
Elizabeth Litchfield ’18, who has family in Savannah, Georgia, agrees. “I had messaged them,” she said of her cousins living on the coast, “and I was like, ‘Are you gonna leave? Because this storm looks kind of bad.’ And they said, ‘No, no, we’ve ridden out hurricanes before, we’ll be fine.’ All of them just stayed.”
“It’s difficult when you don’t know how a storm’s going to shift,” Gonzalez added, speaking of the storm’s unexpected change in direction from the south to the west of Florida. “The governor evacuated one area thinking it was going to hit, but now the west is in that path, and these people have to rush to shelters.”
Many residents of Miami and surrounding areas had been urged to evacuate to Tampa and other western cities before the hurricane made landfall, putting additional strain on a city that was not prepared to be in the storm’s direct path. Despite the hurricane’s unpredictability, Gonzalez said she “felt that for the most part they kept people very informed.” That’s why her family ended up staying in Miami, she explained, although they had been planning to evacuate before the storm shifted its trajectory.
“It worked out pretty well,” she said. “I mean, typical. They lost power, they just got their power back after five days. So they’ve been lucky.”
Litchfield and Gonzalez were both fortunate to not lose contact with their
families over the storm period, although for Gonzalez it was difficult as cell service all but disappeared from her home town for several days. “I had a friend, she lost total connection with her parents,” Gonzalez added. “That’s the most worrisome part. Being so far away and not being able to communicate with your family.”
Irma was difficult for the country as a whole to deal with, arriving in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and in the middle of an increasingly urgent discussion about climate change. “This one was just different,” said Litchfield, speaking to the nationwide sensations of fear and weariness after a series of recent natural disasters. “It was just like one thing after another.”
In fact, Irma’s arrival so soon after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey means that it is competing for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) dangerously depleted resources. As the federal government struggles to adjust the budget to accommodate this growing need for disaster relief, it’s unlikely that devastated areas will be receiving as much undivided government attention as they would hope for during the coming weeks.
“Honestly, I think the most help will come from locals, like it did with Houston,” said Litchfield. “You know, people from all corners of Texas came down with their boats. I hope that’s not the case, though. I really do.”
“There’s going to be a lot to rebuild,” said Gonzalez simply. “And I think Miami was very lucky.”
Miami may have been lucky, but rebuilding communities in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean are projects that the public is already speaking of in terms of not weeks or months, but years.
HURRICANE RELIEF: LINKS TO DONATE
For Hurricane Irma:
For Hurricane Harvey: