We’d grown accustomed to our cushy, hurricane-free lives. We’d forgotten what it felt like to walk into Publix with a list a mile-long and scurry around like chickens with their heads cut off, reaching for that last can of green beans. We’d gone more than a decade without a direct hit. Then, Hermine hit close to Tallahassee in 2016, but missed us completely. We didn’t get our wake-up call until October of 2016, when Hurricane Matthew devastated our coastline. We watched the iconic Jacksonville Beach Pier get ripped to shreds. There are places that still have not been repaired, including the pier. Before we could catch our breath, along came Irma, wreaking havoc across the entire state.
The damage from Irma is still being assessed. At the peak of the storm, 250,000 JEA-powered homes were in the dark. Floodwaters reached parts of the city residents never thought they would — The Landing was a part of the river. Heavily trafficked Riverside Avenue and Memorial Park were completely submerged. Black Creek in Middleburg flooded 1,900 homes, rising 13 feet in 12 hours. Homes in Ponte Vedra looked as if they’d fallen off a cliff. Boats in St. Augustine were thrown into a concrete bulkheads by the waves. And that’s only the beginning of the damages caused by a storm that played with the entire state.
It was a combination of bad timing and bad luck. When Hurricane Irma came barreling down the West Coast of Florida, the ground was already saturated. We’ve had an abnormally wet summer, with a whopping 31.88 inches of rain over June, July and August, compared to 7.88 in 2016.* We’ve also had higher than average tides. Then, along came a nor’easter in the days leading up to Irma, piling on more rainfall and causing winds to trap it in the St. Johns River.
“It all added up to extra water in the system before we even started to feel direct impacts from Irma,” said Mike Buresh, Chief Meteorologist at Action News Jax.
It was the worst flooding Jacksonville has seen since Hurricane Dora in 1964. On its way to Jacksonville, Dora fluctuated between a Category 2 and 3, before finally weakening to a tropical storm in Georgia. Winds at around 110 miles per hour pushed the surging St. Johns six feet up and into downtown. Dora flooded downtown in a similar way as Irma did, making parking lots look like extensions of the river, with light poles dotting the waterscape.
Irma moved up the west coast of Florida in a similar way, alternating between a Category 2 and 3. By the time it reached central Florida, it was a Category 1. It was downgraded again to a tropical storm on Monday morning on September 11. But, Jacksonville was still one of the hardest hit, with Irma’s winds dropping eight to 15 inches of water and pushing over 10 feet into downtown and its surrounding areas. Irma’s eye was over 80 miles away, near Live Oak, but the 415 miles wide storm could still touch us.
Dora and Irma were only rivaled by the early September hurricane of 1878. It caused similar flooding in downtown Jacksonville with “tides backed up into the streets,” according to the Atlantic Hurricane Re-analysis Project by NOAA. When it touched Northeast Florida, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm.
The impacts of these storms prove Buresh’s mantra that “there’s no such thing as ‘just a,’” meaning that there is no such thing as “just a tropical storm” or “just a Category 1 hurricane.”
“They still can be very damaging and very dangerous,” said Buresh. “None of them are the same and all of them have different impacts.”
There’s no question that Irma will be on our minds for years to come.
*September 2017 data is only preliminary. Data showed rainfall at 10.82 inches for 2017, compared to 4.36 in 2016. Data courtesy of the National Weather Service.
This article was originally published in our Hurricane Irma Recap Issue.