Hurricane season 2018: Think you survived a Cat 4? … Not even close


People bristle in disbelief, even anger, when hurricane center specialist John Cangialosi tells them the truth about Hurricane Irma’s wind speeds.

Many believe they survived much worse during the September tempest, and aren’t keen to hear otherwise.

But only those within about 15 miles of Irma’s fierce eye that made landfall near Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10, 2017 experienced the sting of a Cat 4 hurricane. As the wind field spread and slowed, people at either end of the island chain — Key Largo and Key West — likely felt no more than sustained Category 1 winds.

Mike Stucka/The Palm Beach Post
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In Palm Beach County, where trees toppled and electricity faltered, no sustained hurricane-force winds were measured during Irma, although a 91-mph gust is on record at Palm Beach International Airport. Broward County had one sustained measurement of 76 in Hollywood, just over the Cat 1 threshold.

“Most people get really defensive when you tell them they saw a Cat 1 Irma, not a Cat 4,” said Cangialosi, who was lead author of the National Hurricane Center’s post-mortem on Irma. “I try to say that I know it was bad and I don’t dismiss what they experienced, but they see it as a put down. It’s a very common thing.”

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In summers past, when Florida basked in a more than decade-long hurricane drought, the worry at the start of storm season was that “hurricane amnesia” had settled over an unconcerned and ill-prepared Sunshine State.

It’s different this June 1.

Few have forgotten the September assault by Hurricane Irma — the first major hurricane of Cat 3 or higher to hit Florida since Wilma in 2005.

OPINION ZONE: Thankful Hurricane Irma wasn’t worse, but we can’t dodge bullets forever

But are the recollections of Irma’s muscle accurate?

Instead of hurricane amnesia, some emergency managers fear people may be overestimating Irma’s wind speeds, attributing the destruction around them to a power greater than what was felt, and then using that as a base on how to react to future storms that will pack greater fury.

“There are a lot of people in the Keys who think they survived a Cat 4 with Irma, but what we know is that for where they were, it was a Cat 1,” said Monroe County Emergency Manager Martin Senterfitt during the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in May. “They will tell you it was bad, it was scary, it was horrible. Yes, and that’s what a Cat 1 looks like. Imagine if it was a cat 3, 4 or 5.”

No hurricane winds were here

Hurricane Irma made landfall about 20 miles northeast of Key West with winds estimated at 132 mph, which is just above Cat 4 strength.

But that violent Cat 4 swirl had a reach of only about 10 to 15 miles from Irma’s 17-mile wide eye, Cangialosi said.

That means areas closer to Marathon felt a Cat 3 hurricane, Islamorada experienced a Cat 2, and Key Largo felt a Category 1 hurricane with winds between 74 and 95 mph.

“People think they survived something stronger and that false knowledge becomes institutionalized,” said Jonathan Rizzo, the warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS office in Key West during the May conference. “I see it in real estate. Someone will say a home survived a hit from a Cat 4 Irma, when it was really a 1.”

Key West International Airport’s gauge went dead after measuring a gust of 94 mph at 7:15 a.m. on Sept. 10, but a damage survey suggests sustained winds were at Category 1 strength.

The strongest sustained wind speed measured in Palm Beach County was 70-mph at a Weather Flow station in Jupiter. That’s 4 miles below a Cat 1.

» Christie: Thankful Hurricane Irma wasn’t worse, but we can’t dodge bullets forever

“Sometimes we need to be reminded that even a Cat 1 will take trees down, and knock down fences,” Cangialosi said. “Most people think it takes a stronger hurricane to do that, but that’s not true.”

Rick Rose, owner of Grandview Gardens Bed and Breakfast in West Palm Beach, said he lost electricity for 10 days after Irma — part of an unfortunate enclave of about four houses with a stubborn blackout problem.

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

Rose said he was a little taken aback by the strength of Irma’s winds considering the eye had trekked so far west, but wasn’t surprised to learn no sustained hurricane-force winds were measured in Palm Beach County.

Although he lost tree limbs, and power, he suffered no major damage.

“As far as I’m concerned, we weren’t even hit from Irma,” Rose said.

For 60 hours, Irma’s Cat 5 strength was real terror

What scared Rose the most, was watching Irma’s lengthy approach, where it retained its Cat 5 strength for an astonishing 60 hours.

On its 13-day journey through the tropical Atlantic, Irma made seven landfalls, four of which were at Cat 5 power. It hit Florida twice, first near Cudjoe Key, and then on Marco Island where it landed as a 115-mph Cat 3.

Orlando, where many people fled, felt a Cat 1, while tropical storm-force winds extended 360 nautical miles from Irma’s center.

The strongest wind speed recorded in South Florida was a 142-mph gust at a Weather Bug station in Naples.

Where weather gauges failed, meteorologists rely on data collected by the Hurricane Hunter aircraft, Doppler radar, satellites and on-the-ground damage surveys. Private companies, universities and other federal agencies also have gauges that contribute to wind reports.

Federal weather gauges at the Miami International Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport both failed the morning of Irma’s landfall, recording 72 mph and 70 mph gusts, respectively, before going dark.

In the NWS report on Irma, meteorologists estimate that some areas of Miami-Dade County, including Key Biscayne, Homestead and Florida City, felt minimal Cat 1 sustained winds.

Palm Beach County’s high range of sustained winds was 65 to 70 mph along the coast north of West Palm Beach.

“Seventy-mile sustained winds are nothing to sneeze at,” said Carol Watson, who had roof shingles ripped from her Royal Palm Beach home. “When it’s beating down on your fence and your home, it’s not OK.”

Watson, like Rose, isn’t surprised that no Cat 1 sustained winds were measured in Palm Beach County.

“I never look at any hurricane with indifference, whether it’s a 1 or a 5,” she said. “I’ll do the same prep. Things can change rapidly.”

Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County’s director of emergency management, said he’s concerned this year about what he calls “last storm syndrome.”

That’s where people judge an approaching hurricane based on what they experienced during the previous storm. So if someone evacuated during Irma and didn’t need to, they’ll stay during the next storm, but if they didn’t evacuate, and feel like they should have, they’ll hit the road regardless of the forecast.

“The problem is that doesn’t work because every storm is different,” Johnson said.

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