Irma's Big Test: Will There Be Less Damage This Time?

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In a world stitched together by instant communication, it’s easy to forget that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and even web mail haven’t existed forever. None of them existed 25 years ago when Hurricane Andrew tore into the southern tip of Florida, instantly educating the populace on how bad a bad hurricane could be.

Except it wasn’t instant. News outlets were there all right, but the area remained difficult to access for days because, according to contemporaneous news reports, more than 50 roads were blocked by trees and downed power poles. The true extent of the damage was revealed the way it usually is, by low-altitude airplane or helicopter survey. I learned of it firsthand when my friend Todd Huvard, then publisher of The Southern Aviator, flew over the area and was stunned at how thoroughly the landscape had been scrubbed of evidence of human effort. “You can’t imagine,” I remember him saying. He was right. I couldn’t. But I can now. (I’ve fled Florida to Todd’s house in North Carolina and we’re perusing archive issues of the magazine.)

As is so often true, the region learned the value of its general aviation airports as disaster recovery sites during Andrew. Although the facilities at Kendall-Tamiami airport were obliterated—including the then-Miami FSS—the runways weren’t. Within hours, civil organizations like Angel Flight were flying all manner of relief missions into Kendall-Tamiami—doctors, nurses and critical supplies totaling more than 115,000 pounds in all in nearly 200 flights, according to The Southern Aviator’s reporting at the time.

That’s a tiny fraction of what was eventually required, but volume was less important than timeliness. When medical personnel and supplies are needed, they’re often needed right now and not the next day or in the next three days, the time it takes for established relief efforts to reach full motion. Even then, distribution of relief effort isn’t homogenous. People who need it badly are left wondering where it is for days, it not weeks.    

Compared to Irma, which is roaring up the west coast of Florida as I write this, Andrew was a compact, fast-moving storm. It did profound damage, but over a relatively small area. Andrew was a Category 4 hurricane upgraded to a 5 after the fact. Irma appears to be a 4 as I write this Sunday morning and is forecast to come ashore just south of where I live, in the Sarasota area. (By Sunday night, it weakened to a Cat 2.) The potential property at risk in its path—including airports—is staggering: Marco Island, Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota, Tampa and St. Petersburg. Many of the airports in these communities—including my own at Venice—are close by the Gulf or tributaries, so the surge flooding potential is high. That trashes the lighting, the AWOS and comm facilities but the runways stay put. In 48 hours or so, we’ll find out what kind of role these airports will play.

There will be a price to pay, however. And we won’t have a sense of that either until later in the week. When I checked in on Venice Wednesday, pre-storm prep was in evidence, but there didn’t appear to be a lot of fly outs. One of the big maintenance operations had moved aircraft back into t-hangars because the large hangars are vulnerable. The t’s at Venice are a mix of older sliding-door structures and some newer hangars built to modern codes. In 2004, we learned how poorly the former fare in a storm and how well the latter do when Hurricane Charley came ashore at Port Charlotte.

When I visited Punta Gorda Airport the morning after the storm, the older hangars were essentially shredded. When the sliding doors lift off their tracks and either collapsed onto the airplanes inside or blew downwind, progressive structural failure was right behind. Dozens of aircraft were lost and one well-known Mooney business, Mod Works, was wiped out entirely.

What was striking about the new code hangars is how they were dented and slightly punctured by missile damage, but the airplanes inside remained intact, if a little moist. Charley was a Category 4 with no storm surge. It was over in four hours. Irma may be a Cat 3 with significant surge. Venice is a half-mile from the Gulf on the west and borders the Intracoastal Waterway on the south and east. No matter how stout the hangar, significant flooding will destroy an airplane and there’s simply no way to know if it will happen or not. It’s very much a random event based on the unpredictable vagaries of wind and tide. Current forecasts call for up to 10 feet of surge.

The more I think about this storm, the more I think of it as a giant test of long-term infrastructure planning and shorter term disaster preparation, the sum of which translate to how habitable Florida will remain in an era where we keep putting more people in the path of storms we know are coming. Along with the abundant sunshine in Florida, there’s also constant streak of denial and a disavowal of probability reflected in unrealistically lax building standards and insurance rates blind to climate realities.

But that’s not to say some infrastructure hasn’t been upgraded. The new hangars I mentioned are an example of this. So is newer housing built to more stringent standards. Based on cable news reporting I’m hearing so far, structural damage is less than expected. The test will be a larger survey of what survives and what doesn’t. At the moment, I’m hopeful that this storm won’t be as bad as forecast.

Based on the hurricane-related coverage I’ve done, the best thing you can hope for is to hear, “it wasn’t as bad as I expected,” a sentiment that reflects, if anything, a good turn of luck seasoned with thoughtful preparation. If the sentiment we hear is, “you can’t imagine,” then it’s clear we’re gonna need a little more work to survive in this part of the tropics.  

Early A.M. update: Press reports from Sarasota and the surrounding country suggest that the forecast surge did not materialize. However, I've heard nothing specifically from the Venice area. Sarasota County power outages are given as about 60 percent. Far less that I would have expected.

Comments (5)

One way to keep track of airport status during the storm passage time was to check online for METARs. KEYW got them out right up until the eye of the storm crossed highway 1. The wind gauge went out a little earlier, but the baro readings (down to 28.11 in.) and vertical visibility were broadcast right up until the power went completely out. KMIA is back on the air now (without a wind reading), but KEYW, KFLL, and KOPF are not.

This information doesn't seem to reach the press, although it is useful in understanding operations both for rescue and for politcial press visits. It would have explained where planes from Washington touched down around Houston a week ago, for example.

Posted by: scott kirkpatrick | September 11, 2017 8:04 AM    Report this comment

Hurricane Andrew prompted the Miami/Dade building codes to become the strictest in the country for wind resistance. There has been an explosion in new construction across the state which should have complied with the updated codes. This will be a good test to see how those standards fare against a big, ugly storm. Unfortunately, as you say, there is little in the codes about storm surge and flooding so that may prove to be the achilles heel for new construction. Putting millions of new people onto a penninsula that gets regular visits from tropical storms will one day prove disastrous, regardless of how well we build the houses and condos.

The Houston area learned that lesson the hard way two weeks ago. Many housing developments have been built in areas that were known to be flood prone, and insufficient upgrades to the drainage system doomed other areas to near catastrophic inundation as well. Houston got little wind from Harvey, but the damage from flooding will be epic.

At some point, we all need to realize putting half the U.S. population at sea level is not a good idea. If climate change goes as predicted, all this will only get worse. Time to move to the mountains! I hear Denver is a nice place.

Posted by: John McNamee | September 11, 2017 11:36 AM    Report this comment

It will be quite some time before we can assess how the new-code structures performed. It's also possible that this storm's strength was over-estimated. It came into Naples as a claimed Cat 4, but Charley was Cat 4 too when it hit Port Charlotte and it did a lot more basic structural damage than we seem to be seeing thus far.

I don't know if you've followed the stories much, but with Andrew a faded memory, Florida is considering relaxing its building codes because the builders say they don't produce "a hurricane proof house." No kidding. Here's a quote from a new story:
This year, alarm bells went up all over the state capital, Tallahassee, when the Republican-led legislature and GOP Gov. Rick Scott passed a new law that untethers Florida's code from international standards and requires fewer votes for the Florida Building Commission to make changes to the building codes."

Now this question: Will Irma embolden them or cause them to rethink?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 11, 2017 12:32 PM    Report this comment

Unless you build a reinforced concrete house on a hill, you won't have a storm proof structure. But, run the numbers and see how much that would cost. Dumbing down the codes is not going to help anything. This should be an opportunity to see what did work and improve on those things that did not.

There are two universal constants in human nature: 1) Money will always trump reason, and 2) Memories fade and people think it won't happen again. I refer you to Einstein's definition of insanity....

Glad you are safe and out of harm's way. Hope your cub is in one of the modern hangars.

Posted by: John McNamee | September 11, 2017 2:02 PM    Report this comment

Now, as the example of Houston showed, The FAA slams a TFR on top of the area, so GA is effectively grounded. Yes, it is because of the Drones (that still fly) but it mainly hinders our activity.

Posted by: ROBERT ZIEGLER | September 11, 2017 6:18 PM    Report this comment

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