Hurricane Irma: Aftermath
I feel a tinge of shame for saying this, and a towering sympathy for those unable to read these words due to a lack of electricity, or a lack internet connectivity, or a lack of both, but I’ve been relatively unscathed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. By sheer good fortune, my water—although not yet potable—has returned to my tap. The shower dribbles a slightly musty substance recognizably aqueous. In it I’ve bathed, careful not to let a drop slip through my lips but grateful to have anything at all. A day later, upon flicking on the light switch, the kitchen turned incandescently bright. This wasn’t at all what I expected. At least for four days, flicking that switch had become more of a muscular reflex than an expectation for the lights actually to work. Harnessing the sun, I dropped to my knees beneath those energetic bulbs with a shout of Sol Invictus! and with a word of reverential worship for Edison and his invention.
I’ve been lucky. Each moment in the artificial light reminds me as much. Mine, however, isn’t the happy fate that’s been visited upon vast swaths of my fellow Floridians. At the time of this writing, more than three million “customers” (by which the electric industry refers to them), remain without power in the state. A “customer”, as the electric companies define it, is not a person per se, but a consumptive unit. The consumer behind the designation of “customer” might be a business, a restaurant, a hospital, or a single-family home. You can imagine how a single “customer” could represent just one household, but—by extension—it may very well represent a family of five or a small business of twenty-five. This means that, in reality, an incalculably larger number of people are living and working without power. The Washington Post, for its part, has placed its estimate of those residents without power to be at around twelve million. This figure, if accurate, would account for more than half of Florida’s population.
Efforts to restore power to those in need could take days or they could take weeks. Hopeful of the former, many are beginning to expect the greater likelihood of the latter. The trouble is this: many power lines have become inaccessible in many places. Crucial roads have been rendered unnavigable with detritus and debris (roofs, signs, shrubs, panels, and the like) strewn about them. And if these challenges weren’t enough to the crews of men and women working on the power company’s behalf, flooding remains to be an ever-present issue.
The effects of this storm have been widespread and they’ve been many. Most surprising in its aftermath has been learning exactly which areas of the state were affected and which were spared. Early on, Tampa Bay was expected to be completely destroyed. Climatologists had warned citizens of this and city planners had reconciled them to this preordained truth. The number of evacuees from the city were among the highest in the state. Generally considered America’s most precariously built city, Tampa Bay was expected to be hit with a storm surge that might’ve rendered the town a modern-day Atlantis. Miraculously, it was spared.
If not Tampa Bay, the meteorologists were certain that the Florida Keys would bear the brunt of Irma’s insuperable force. Sadly, they wouldn’t twice be proved wrong.
The Keys are one of Florida’s more unique attractions. Verdant, isolated, and as south as south can be, they make for an alluring archipelago, from whose mount one can almost glimpse Cuba. Yet for all their natural beauty, they are unpropitiously placed. Of the thousands of little islets that compose the Keys, about forty are habitable and every last one is vulnerable. Before Irma made her landfall, the damage at the Keys was expected to be severe and by all measures, it was. It’s impossible for inspectors to report on the damage reliably at this early hour, given that many parts of the island chain remain impassable. That said, they are estimating that twenty-five percent of the homes have been irreparably damaged and equally as many business establishments have been ruined. Worse still, multiple deaths have been reported, marking the only casualties of the storm thus far.
Miami, like Tampa Bay, was expected to absorb the worst of Irma’s wrath. And again, fortuitously like Tampa Bay, Miami was relatively unscathed. South Beach was spared the eye of the storm, but experienced is furious winds. At or just below Miami’s skyline were multiple cranes. For reasons unbeknownst to just about any person watching from home, the cranes were left where they stood in anticipation for the storm. Inevitably, with winds exceeding 150 miles, down they fell, tearing through the buildings next to which they stood. Besides this damage to the city’s infrastructure above the ground, it also suffered damage on it. Irma brought to Miami significant flooding in most parts of the city.
These cities and areas—Tampa Bay, the Keys, and Miami—were doubtless better prepared to face Irma than those in the northern part of the state. Less prepared for her was Jacksonville. Just off of Interstate 95 in Florida’s northeast corner is Jacksonville. It’s the city that first greets you as you transcend that Florida-Georgia line. Situated on the coast, it sits about thirty minutes from the Georgia border above. Coursing through this port city of nearly one million people is the St. Johns River. It’s a massive body of water that meanders some three hundred and fifteen miles south down the state to the Ocala National Forest. At its widest, the river is nearly three miles across.
Already turgid from the summer season’s heavy rains, with Irma’s assistance, the St. Johns River was made to overflow. Not wanting a subsequent hurricane to surpass her efforts, Irma caused the St. Johns to do so in a historic way. Not since 1846 has the city experienced so diluvial an event. As the storm passed through, the river quickly exceeded its banks and flowed into the surrounding areas. Without sufficient rivulets or avenues into which this excess water could flow, it streamed into residential and commercial areas, saturated the grounds, made impregnable the streets, and damaged countless homes.
The four places tell four different tales. Yet it says nothing of my own city’s story. It’s at this point, then, that I turn and reflect upon the place from which I write. Of course, no city nor town can expect to see its way through a category four hurricane completely unscarred, but the damages Naples has absorbed appear—at least at this earliest stage and to my eye—entirely manageable. Granted, I say this after having spoken with countless residents who still are without power, having waited in desperately long lines for groceries, and having given up hope more than once while waiting for fuel in lines that would evoke memories of OPEC-induced shortages. Still, however bleak it might be, the overwhelming sentiment and the recurring caveat I keep hearing is that this storm and the damages could’ve been much worse.