6 months on: 4 lessons learned from Hurricane Irma

'Perfect storm' filled Jacksonville, nearby counties with water, debris

By Rebecca Barry - Meteorologist

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Six month ago, those of us not already evacuated as Hurricane Irma made it's way up the Florida peninsula, were hunkered down in our homes.

The storm that devastated several Caribbean islands and made landfall in the Keys as a Category 4 storm was on its way. We knew we'd take a hit, but no one, not even those of us at The Weather Authority, predicted that this would be the our area's most damaging hurricane in 50 years.

Why this storm?

Weather conditions that alone would not be significant can be catastrophic when combined. So many factors came together to make Irma a "perfect storm" along the St Johns River.

We are no strangers to nor'easters nor higher-than-normal high tides from different lunar phases. But in the days before Hurricane Irma when northeasterly winds pounded our shoreline and drove tons of water into the river, it set the stage for historic flooding once Irma plowed up the Florida peninsula.

Hurricane Irma: By the numbers

Other seemingly small factors continued to fall into place to add up to the water from the St Johns River spilling over its banks and rushing down the streets of downtown, San Marco and Riverside before dawn Sept. 12, 2017.

The shape of the river played a role in the flooding.

The river narrows and turns east just north of downtown. The high volume of water that had been driven slowly past that narrow turn by the northeasterly winds in the days leading up to Irma were very suddenly pushed back out once the winds turned. The water especially built up in the downtown area because it backed up from the narrowing turn in the river. 

Other than the previous days of strong northeasterly winds, the other huge factor in the flooding along the St Johns River as Irma raged just west of Jacksonville was a severe rain band that pushed through around 3 a.m. This particular band had 86 mph winds pushing an extreme amount of water into the mouth of the river.

In combination with the tides and other factors, this one rain band acted as the figurative straw that broke the camel's back, kicking off the record flooding that caused millions of dollars of damage. Had that rain band moved onshore 20 miles north or south of the St Johns, the flooding would not have occurred.

Debris removal takes time and is expensive

The worst damage in our city by far came from the flood waters. But from the most badly damaged homes to the luckiest residents, nearly everyone had a pile of debris sitting in front of their houses for weeks.

When the winds of Irma howled through our city branches snapped off, limbs cracked, and giant trees came crashing down. The day after, the roar of the chainsaws started and we got back to work getting our homes and yards as close to "normal" as we could. All the branches and sawed-up trees were stacked up as neatly as possible where the street meets your yard. 

While we were dragging pieces of trees to the street and hoping for the power to come back on soon, a complicated and multifaceted production was already initiated: area-wide debris removal. Parks were designated as temporary dump sites where trucks would haul debris. The trees, limbs and other vegetative debris would be processed through a wood chipper and hauled off by larger trucks. 

IMAGES: Debris lines NE Florida streets

The pile of dying brush and trees sitting on our lawns every day served as a reminder about how bad it was, and how vulnerable we are to Mother Nature's wrath. We wanted it gone.

Calls poured into the newsroom all day, every day with viewers voicing frustration that their debris had not been touched yet.

I live near one of the parks-turned-debris-dump-sites, so my perspective was a little different. Whether I left early in the morning to work Richard Nunn's shift or stayed late for John Gaughan's evening shift, on my way to and from the station, trucks were constantly roaring past, piled high with our hurricane debris.

I know it felt like it took forever for them to make it to your house, but when you sit back and think about how much debris the city and surrounding counties were tasked to move, it's pretty impressive.

And expensive. Duval County estimated debris removal cost $41 million. 

No two storms are the same

Last season we experienced Irma, and the season before that we hunkered down while Hurricane Matthew ravaged our coastline. Looking back, this really illustrates that no two storms are alike.

Matthew came up the East Coast from the south. We will not soon forget watching the ocean breach the sand dunes of Jacksonville Beach and pour into the streets and homes along the beach.

IMAGES: Hurricane Matthew's wrath

When the sun rose, we stared in disbelief at our relatively new pier, which was supposed to survive this sort of storm, ripped in half. Our coastal neighborhoods were hit hard with three feet of seawater in homes, making them unlivable and trashing everything inside. 

When Hurricane Irma's path eventually became evident, many people breathed a sigh of relief. It was going to be a West Coast storm for Florida. The worst damage was forecast to be south of us and the storm should weaken over land as it traveled up the state.

Despite this seemingly more favorable path for our area, we actually saw stronger wind gusts with Irma than we did with Matthew. The defining moment of Irma for me was seeing the streets of downtown Jacksonville, San Marco and Riverside flooded like nothing before in my lifetime. The only comparison I had to the flooding was pictures from Hurricane Dora. Which brings me to the next takeaway. 

Hurricane impacts can be as severe inland as along the coast

When hurricane season enters its peak and we start watching forecast cones shift slightly toward us or away from us, it's common for people to think "that won't happen to me." It's even easier to believe that if you live miles from the ocean.

Nearly all areas along the river saw at least moderate flooding as the river peaked at a record high downtown and flowed blocks into downtown and nearby neighborhoods.

IMAGES: Flooding along St. Johns River

Devastating floods also hit Nassau County and Southeast Georgia. Homes were wrecked and lives were changed forever, miles and miles away from the ocean. 

Looking ahead

Whether the 2018 hurricane season will be below average, average or above average when it comes to the number of systems in the Atlantic, remember that it only takes one storm to change your world and affect your family.

I'd like to think that the lessons we've learned together from the past two seasons will help us to prepare for whatever the summer and fall may bring. 

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