Florida residents picked store shelves clean and long lines formed at gas pumps last week as Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 system with potentially catastrophic winds of 185 mph, steamed toward the southern United States and multiple Caribbean islands.
Irma was first recorded as a tropical wave on Aug. 26. Four days later, the storm system strengthened and became better organized as it upgraded to a tropical storm. The warm waters of the Atlantic serve as a way for storms to grow. The tropical storm went through a rapid intensification period as it strengthened into a Category 3 major hurricane in a matter of 12 hours. “It has become more likely that Irma will make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and bring life-threatening storm surge and wind impacts to much of the state,” the National Hurricane Center announced on Sept. 7.
The storm prompted the closure of schools across South Florida for Thursday and Friday, Sept. 6 and 7.
The most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic destroyed homes and flooded streets as it roared through a chain of islands in the Caribbean such as Antigua, Barbuda, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The Prime Minister of Barbuda, Gaston Browne, said nearly all of the government and personal property on Barbuda was damaged — including the hospital and the airport, as reported by The Washington Post.
Mandatory evacuations were put in place for eastern Miami-Dade County and parts of Homestead. The entire peninsula of Florida was in “a cone of uncertainty,” according to the National Hurricane Center. Interstate highways and Florida’s Turnpike saw congestion for miles as residents were evacuating north. Meteorologists predicted that the eye of the storm was going to enter through Miami-Dade and then move along the east coast. On Sept. 8, the storm started shifting west ‒ directly affecting Cuba as a Category 5 system. After it passed through Cuba, Irma set her eye to Southwest Florida, placing the lives of people in Collier County and the Florida Keys in imminent danger. Ultimately, the storm made landfall as a Category 4 in Cudjoe Key, Fla. and moved through the Florida Straits. Hours later, a second landfall occurred in Marco Island. Soon enough, the entire state was feeling the wrath of Hurricane Irma as the massive Category 4 system moved through.
Millions of residents in South Florida reported power outages in their homes. According to the Associated Press, power outages climbed to over 7 million homes and businesses in several states.
The next morning, residents were left in shock when they went outside their homes and into the streets to see what damage was done. Trees were uprooted, power lines were down, fences were blown off their original structures, streets were flooded and homes were damaged. Resident Jenny Fuentes, along with her mother and younger sister, were riding out the storm in their home as they witnessed the tall avocado tree that towers over their backyard come up from the ground and knock down their fence. Extensive damage to the backyard ensued after the tree uprooted.
“It was definitely a scary experience,” Fuentes said. “Cleaning up our backyard after the storm was the hardest part of all of this.”
Driving through the residential areas of Miami can be described as “treacherous” and “dangerous.” Traffic lights were not functioning, making roads unsafe as Miami drivers were unsure how to approach major intersections without the guidance of those lights. Trees were blocking entire streets creating traffic jams. South Florida highways experience an influx of cars re-entering the county after being evacuated by city officials.
“Driving from Tallahassee to my house [in Palmetto Bay] took 10 hours because of all the traffic going south,” senior Ava Ibañez said.
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and his staff at Miami-Dade County Public Schools were working relentlessly until roads in the counties were safe for students to commute and attend school. In a memorandum sent by Carvalho, he details the efforts his team had done to ensure the community was safe during Irma. “I am incredibly proud and honored to lead this group of professionals,” he said.
In Miami-Dade County alone, over 600,000 people were subject to a mandatory evacuation order. Of those displaced by the storm, more than 30,000 sought refuge in one of the 44 school facilities opened as a shelter. Before the storm, M-DCPS was working directly with the National Guard, the American Red Cross, and Miami-Dade County Police Department to manage and secure shelters. During the storm, over 900 employees, including school administrators, cafeteria workers, custodial staff, police officers, and others, supported those who sought refuge at shelters. According to the memorandum, after the storm, repairs were initiated at 345 sites that incurred minor to moderate damage as virtually all sites had significant debris and fallen trees. Through a week of around the clock work, it was determined on Sunday, Sept. 17, that school sites met the threshold for the districtwide reopening of schools the following day.
M-DCPS is already planning for future storms as a meeting will be convened with representatives from the county and the American Red Cross to review and debrief on the proper protocols for shelter operation and resource management. As many students were displaced from their homes, staff has implemented a plan to provide breakfast and lunch for all students at no cost through Oct. 20, as authorized and funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA.)
The effects of Hurricane Irma still linger in the community as citizens are still reeling in from her destructive nature as roads still need to get cleaned up and houses need to be repaired.