Hurricane Irma, the most harrowing hurricane to sweep across the Florida Keys in 57 years, could have been worse.
“Had we had a textbook hurricane, the second [storm] surge would have been more than a nuisance,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jon Rizzo told Monroe County Commissioners Tuesday. “We could have had significant flooding.”
Rizzo, acting meteorologist in charge at the Key West NWS office, briefed commissioners on Irma’s dangerous and devastating power at the board’s Key West meeting.
Not all areas experienced the maximum sustained winds of 130 mph that stretched from Ramrod Key to Bahia Honda, and an estimated peak gust of more than 150 mph that raked Big Pine Key, Rizzo said. “But I will not say Irma was not a Category 4 hurricane” in other parts of the Keys, he said. “There was only one hurricane and it was a Category 4.”
Before Irma made landfall in the Lower Keys, the storm weakened from Category 5 strength when its center ran along the northern coast of Cuba. That helped lessen damage in areas like Key West by reducing the back half of the storm’s surge, Rizzo noted.
“I watched the waters [in Florida Bay in the Middle Keys] recede to where there was no water,” Commissioner George Neugent said. “I had a big fear of that water coming back in. I was worried about what I’d witnessed in Wilma when we got 8 to 9 feet water on the backside” of the storm.
Rizzo said some wave heights atop the surge as Irma hit Big Pine’s Long Beach Road were 20 feet above normal mean high water. “That’s incredible,” he said.
Storm surge generally was estimated at 5 to 8 feet from Duck Key to Cudjoe Key. “The highest valuies were along the south and east shores of Ramrod, The Torches, Big Pine and Bahia Honda,” Rizzo said.
Storm surge from Conch Key to Ocean Reef was estimated at 3 to 5 feet, with similar surge from Big Coppitt to Lower Sugarloaf Key.
Hurricane Irma had a diameter of 110 miles, nearly three times the size of Hurricane Charley in 2004, and set records for days of sustained major-hurricane strength. “This really is one for the record books,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo said that structure damage that residents often ascribe to tornado damage likely was the result of a “shear vortex forming in the inner edge of intense hurricane eyewalls.”
A vortex, similar to a hurricane, has more sideways movement that produces “long, narrow paths of more intense damage.”
Delays in re-entering the Keys after the storm caused some residents to vow “never to evacuate again,” Neugent said. “I guarantee that most of the people who stayed will not do it again.”
Commissioners opened the board meeting by electing David Rice as the county mayor for the next year. Rice last served as mayor from 2011-12. Sylvia Murphy was named vice mayor.