Lessons and scenes from Hurricane Irma: preparedness and infrastructure failure

By Ben Alonzo 0 Comments
unprepared

Irma was another reminder of America’s failing infrastructure, preparedness, response, and insurance systems. Both Hurricane Harvey and Irma tested our national and individual preparedness capability. Overwhelming data shows we have a critical failure to prepare as individuals and our infrastructure isn’t ready for any major disaster. We lack scientific resilience and sustainability — at a time where those two terms have critical significance. Our future survival depends on immediate infrastructure interventions and the development of resilient citizens and communities. We can learn many things from just one storm.

Another Disaster

Irma was stronger in the Caribbean and Keys, but much of Florida experienced tropical storm-force to minimal Category 1 hurricane winds. Residents are demanding answers about the ridiculous lack of preparedness, information, a weak power grid, and failing insurance policies. This requires the attention of Congress, our president, scientists, and local officials. We can’t afford to continue these blatant failures.

The internet gave us an inside view of the period before, during, and after Hurricane Irma hit Florida. Before it hit mainland Florida, Irma was one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean (others likely have occurred before instruments were used). It was initially a Category 5 hurricane with winds around 185 miles per hour as it hit the Caribbean, but then quickly weakened as it moved inland through Central Florida on September 10, 2017. Irma struck Florida less than a month after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas. Harvey already costs more than Hurricane Katrina. Both Harvey and Irma are going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, primarily because of flooding and infrastructure failure. Both storms have put the spotlight on American infrastructure and preparedness.

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I have no water, no food, no fuel. I don’t know what to do. There’s nothing in the stores and I have kids at home.” – a Central Florida resident says.

Everyone should have a personal interest in disaster preparedness, addressing our infrastructure problems, and accepting what science says about risk management. We have to learn from our mistakes and make improvements now because it will reduce the future impacts of another hurricane. It’s only a matter of time before Florida or Texas experience another major hurricane.

Remarkable technology allows us to take a unique look at storms like Irma. Humans have evolved in awesome ways, but we as a nation are not fully embracing science and technology.

This report is a mixture of analysis from select data regarding America’s infrastructure, flood insurance, meteorological reports, and example hurricane damage within Central Florida. Central Florida was selected because it was the location of ULTRA TechLife and made it easier to collect specific data on such short notice after this event. Much of the Florida Keys received severe damage and further reports will likely go over findings for that specific area. Expect those reports to reflect much of what is said here. Some of the things that happened before, during, and after the hurricane are alarming.

Background: Unprepared America

According to one study from Columbia University, at least 65% of American households don’t have a disaster plan or supplies. Sixty percent of Americans don’t practice for disasters, according to the federal government. Most surveyed also said they felt the government wasn’t prepared for any major emergency. This isn’t new information. During Katrina, a significant amount of people reported they weren’t prepared for a hurricane, according to health researchers. Some of the scenes the world saw after Katrina clearly indicated the poor performance of infrastructure and lack of individual preparedness. Before Irma, Florida felt it was unprepared. The Washington Post suggests we’re not prepared because America has been watching the devastation from other world emergencies from the comfort of home, feeling such a disaster couldn’t happen to them. Recent disasters are having a larger impact on the entire country, disrupting the economy, further damaging infrastructure, and forever changing the lives of people in the affected areas.

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A massive storm can be seen from space.

Emergency preparedness experts call the lack of preparedness a disaster before the disaster, ironically.

The Scene

A familiar sight: immediately before Hurricane Irma, and up until stores closed, people rushed to buy anything they could find. You could not find batteries, water, camping gear, waterproof coats, fuel, or popular food. If people were already prepared, there would be no reason to rush stores and buy items you already had. The ongoing rush to stores during disasters is a clear indication that people aren’t prepared. They were buying the actual items experts tell them to get for a home disaster kit. People were trying to frantically buy items to create a disaster kit — as the disaster was hitting. Since items were scarce, any disaster kit would have been inadequate in supply. Nearly every department store was sold out of useful disaster items.

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“I posted to Facebook to see if people would bring me batteries and food. Everything’s empty.” – Central Florida Resident

A disaster preparedness kit should be something you already have and it should be fully stocked. It’s not just for hurricanes, it’s for anything year-round. The added effect of the media showing empty shelves just creates more panic and a cycle of more people rushing stores. There are two ways to handle this: either surge products before an event so they exist in adequate supply or people should just already have a disaster kit. The easier and smarter option: have your own disaster kit beforehand.

For people that experienced their first hurricane, anxiety and fear lasted hours. The impacts of a hurricane can be felt before and after the eye arrives.

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Irma turns much of Central Florida into total darkness.

Some were crying because they were in the dark for hours – without any information.

People are used to rich visual communication, typical of high-definition television and surfing the internet. However, power outages meant that television and cruising the internet wasn’t an option. Their only option was to sit for hours and listen to the sound of the wind flowing over various surfaces. This can be very frightening for people that didn’t know the strength of their own building materials. Meteorologists did an excellent job during Irma, working all night, providing real-time updates and reassuring anyone listening that they would make it through the night.

Immediately after Hurricane Irma, the scenes in Central Florida were also concerning.

In less than 24 hours, a significant amount of people were out of fuel, water, and food. A strange thing happens next. Any restaurant that had power had a rare opportunity with people standing in lines for hours – just to find out they ran out of food. Restaurants capitalized on hungry, desperate people looking for both a meal and a place to sit in air conditioning. The sudden rush of people might have been the biggest business in a single day, for these restaurants. After all, it’s normally about 80-85 degrees F this time of year. Without air conditioning, it can get hot inside. Many restaurants quickly ran out of food.

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It was difficult to find food and water after Irma.

ULTRA TechLife interviewed several Central Florida restaurants immediately after the storm. One Central Florida Flipper’s Pizza location said they were out of dough, but waiting for corporate to tell them whether they should stay open, sell other food, and let people just sit in air conditioning. Another Mexican restaurant quickly ran out of food and room for people to sit. Angry people returned to their cars, after waiting hours in long lines. Some tried to drive around looking for any open restaurant, which caused many to run out of gas. Thankfully, there were also various volunteers and law enforcement vehicles driving around with extra fuel for those that were stranded on the side of the road.

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“I’m looking for a place that has ice and water, there’s no gas, and we’re also hungry.” – Central Florida resident.

Long lines formed outside of any place that was opened, the afternoon Irma left. Many expressed their anger with the power grid, lack of food, nowhere to buy water, and lack of any information about restoration estimates. Far too many people rely on others to obtain food and water. Part of a disaster preparedness kit should include water and a water filter system. This was a minimal hurricane, but the impacts could have been huge with a stronger storm. Federal emergency officials have (for years) told people that they should have enough food and water to last by themselves for at least 72 hours. In a matter of 12 hours, large amounts of people were wondering the streets looking for food, water, fuel, and air conditioning.

Six days after Irma left Central Florida, many department stores were still out of meat, milk, ice, water, and other popular items. They were open, had power, and the roads were clear, but the shelves were empty. In many stores, all of the can goods, chips, bread, and camping isles remained empty. Some Central Florida stores received additional supplies by Friday morning. Unless people had stocked up and had a way to keep items frozen, finding food or water at a store was difficult.

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Empty stores. It could have been much worse with a stronger storm.

We should start telling people to stop buying certain groceries a week before a major hurricane hits. The reason for this is to avoid costly loss that isn’t covered by insurance. For example, a family could immediately lose $250 dollars by everything in their freezer and refrigerator spoiling, common after so many hour without power. This kind of loss is real for people living paycheck to paycheck, but it’s not something that’s discussed enough. This also creates another public health problem: spoiled food and a sudden surge in waste outside of homes as people trash everything all-the-sudden. Trash that mixes with water can be create dangerous fluids that are carried far away from the home and contaminate the neighborhood. Imagine the fluids in people’s trash, not just the milk, oils, or rotten meats.

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“I’m looking for anywhere to plug and charge. It’s all I got.” – Central Florida resident.

A large, unknown exactly, amount of people were likely without any communication method during and after Irma. Without batteries and a portable radio, there was no way to get updated curfew and weather information. Without a rechargeable brick for a smartphone, there was no way to keep it running. A smartphone can last many hours on standby, but only a few with aggressive use. Without a generator or rechargeable brick, people began wondering the streets for anywhere they could tap and charge their phones. This presents another legal issue: in times of emergency, is it legal for a person to go up to someone else’s property and use their power? Current answer: not without permission.

A potential public health issue also involves the fact that unhealthy foods were more readily available than healthy choices during and after this event. Stores were full of candy and soft drinks, but lacked the basics of water, bread, and milk. A few bags of ice could have kept some milk cold enough for people to have cereal or make other things. Again, the solution to this is to either be prepared as an individual beforehand or to require a public surge of goods just before a storm, which would ensure these items are available in larger than normal quantity.

Several people had no way to report dangerous “live” lines that were down. There was no widely known streamlined way to communicate. In times of emergency, you might have to speak faster, be direct, and find ways to quickly accomplish important tasks. In the future, having people download an app on their phone that could take pictures and georeferenced a location could allow utilities to prioritize response and also get more situational awareness. Additionally, there would be a way to communicate with people and let them know their report was received and/or a status update as to what’s being done about it.

Curfews are also something to discuss among officials. Specifically, there should be clarification as to who it includes and who’s excluded. There was noted confusion during several curfews, regarding media and people that were excluded. Additionally, at some point, a curfew becomes a problem. In the case of people without food, water, power, and fuel, they became desperate, and try to drive somewhere to get things they need. Food and water can be considered urgent life-sustaining resources. Several curfews were in effect, after the hurricane was over. Understandably, this can be for good reason: to prevent looting, keep people off impassible roads, etc. However, the curfew may have kept people away from food and water resources. Most of Central Florida’s roads were relatively clear and damage was minimal (see photo examples). Further discussion of curfews must take place because each county will have different population needs.

Many were discussing who should be out during storms. Hospital staff, emergency medical technicians, firemen, police, on-duty military, power workers, media, and those on their own private property were/should be excluded from any curfew. It’s also 2017, which means modern news media includes a majority of online delivery and reception modes, which means the legal language in curfews must be updated to provide modern, adequate protections for who is/isn’t consider news media. New media reporters have an important job in disseminating newsworthy items, especially during an emergency. Any credible news source that regularly produces news and does so for financial gain should be included in the definition of news media. Credible information is good information. In fact, several agencies actually monitor live reports where reporters, meteorologists, or storm chasers, are out measuring winds and providing live video – a source of credible situational awareness for emergency management resources. The flow of information must not be impaired, even if it involves certain risk.

Given the above situation, had Hurricane Irma hit Central Florida as a Category 5, the results would have been very bad. People are unprepared and these findings are similar to what experts have been saying for decades. It’s not just Central Florida. Again, it’s the entire nation. Our federal, state, and local government aren’t prepared, according to federal reports. Individuals are also not prepared. The best way to start change is for individuals to first become prepared. We’ve had enough disasters to learn from and more are ahead.

Corporate Greed

Hurricane Irma was a perfect example of the disconnect between corporate greed and employee safety. While officials were on TV telling people to leave or they would die, businesses were telling employees they better show up to work or get fired.

Companies were reminding employees that they must show up to work. Now, it should be mentioned that some employees were likely taking advantage of Florida’s state of emergency that were not located in the path of Irma’s damage. There’s a saying that a few ruin it for the rest. For example, hotels became very important after Irma hit because they were housing volunteers, workers, and displaced people. This is a difficult case that requires someone to be a reliable employee, especially if they weren’t severely impacted. After all, income is important, if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.

Regardless of exact details, some of these cases spread through social media, resulting in outrage. One pizza place eventually caved to public pressure, once people expressed their outrage that a company was more concerned with profit instead of employee safety. There needs to be legal protections, it seems, since people cannot exercise common sense, specifically for the corporate world. Before a major disaster, in order to protect life and preserve property, some evacuations and personal actions are a necessity. Pizza restaurant and gas station employees should not be forced to risk their lives or neglect their families when a government official is telling them they’re going to die, if they don’t evacuate the area. This is a mixed message that requires corporate understanding.

Price Gouging

Price gouging is an ongoing issue.

Outrageous prices in times of emergency.

Unfortunately, some of the largest online companies doubled, tripled, and quadrupled the prices of items, in order to maximize profit off of desperate people. Many airline companies also raised prices to outrages amounts, some were in excess of $10,000 for a regularly sold $200 ticket. Local businesses also tried to price gouge residents. The Orlando Sentinel reports that one gas station wanted $20 for a bag of ice. Over 10,000 price gouging cases have been reported to Florida authorities. Price gouging in an emergency, specifically in the context of vital food, water, fuel, health, and travel is unacceptable. There must be protections and immediate interventions to reduce or prevent this in the future.

Private Sector Success

There’s something remarkable about the independent actions of a private company. There were multiple companies with great disaster preparedness and response plans.

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A huge organized effort to move expensive airplanes out of airports without passengers aboard.

For example, it was such a sight to see aircraft leaving Daytona Beach International Airport in Florida before Irma. It was a last-minute move, but very coordinated. Commercial pilots had to move thousands of planes out of the path of Hurricane Irma. Aircraft tracking software showed a huge line of general aviation aircraft coming from Embry Riddle Flight School in Daytona Beach, Florida. This is an example of advanced planning and just how complicated logistics can get for just one company. They must move assets out of the way of destruction, if possible.

Other local businesses stocked up on food because they knew people wouldn’t be prepared – and people would be hungry. After all, people want to get back to familiar life and eat comforting food. This is an example of business providing a service people want and doing what they can to ensure they can even do this during times of disaster.

Some specialized private businesses will likely make great profits after Hurricane Harvey and Irma because they provide unique products and services. It’s always good to see some success, especially during a large-scale disaster.

Part of judging success must involve how well the weather forecasting industry did. Our satellites, communication system, and warning resources are indeed part of a somewhat outdated infrastructure that is not immune to failure.

Next, we will discuss some meteorological perspectives about Hurricane Irma.

Meteorological Analysis

Before Hurricane Irma hit, our weather models showed this Irma almost two weeks away, which gave all of Florida some time to prepare. This is a testament to modern science that such advanced notice can be given. Advanced notice is important because while individuals may take minutes or hours to prepare, it takes much longer for a hospital to prepare or city to evacuate. There are lots of factors that go into considering watches, warnings, and evacuations. Atmospheric conditions can also cause a storm to deviate from its forecasted path. This is why a hurricane uncertainty cone exists, allowing for path deviation. Basically, anyone in or near a hurricane’s projected path should be prepared.

Recent hurricanes have rehashed the US operational meteorology and weather research budgets. How much is your life worth? Property? How much is advanced notice worth? Advanced notice is priceless for a hospital, for example. It’s very hard to argue against adequate spending within critical areas of public and private industry. This is the case we find with weather forecasting. It costs money to do research and operate a weather network of ground, air, and space instruments. Satellites give us priceless data, but they also cost.

President Trump wanted to cut the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 17%. About $80 million would be taken away from the National Weather Service, which issues critical severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. Weather forecasting and the meteorological industries are considered part of the nation’s national security resources. Weather is critical for the economy, transportation, health, and military. Nobody is denying that some areas of government overspend, but dramatic cuts to such critical industries seem counterproductive. More funding, equipment upgrades, hiring of competent scientists, transparent oversight, policy adjustments, and overall improvement is the solution.

It’s not just the government that aids in advanced weather forecasting and modeling. Private companies and academic institutions may experience cuts that could reduce operational capacity and accuracy of our future weather forecast systems. Budget cuts also threaten tsunami, flood, and tornado warning systems. Some also point out that environmental protections are also taking a huge hit, which will ultimately be a disservice to the general public.

What’s Actually Happening

There was a huge misunderstanding among the public and media about the wind speeds expected. Automatically, when many hear Category 5, they assume the entire area under the familiar shape of a hurricane on satellite means everyone under that mass of clouds gets 157+ mph winds. Hurricane-force winds can extend away from the eye of the storm, but they don’t often cover an entire 500-800 mile width, especially Category 5 winds. A Category 5 hurricane can hit a state, but various locations could get winds well below that category, which makes calling it a Category 5 kind of misleading. Focusing too much on the category also causes people to both overestimate and underestimate the damage.

It doesn’t take a major hurricane to cause significant damage, especially with the lack of stronger infrastructure and resiliency. Whenever the ground is already saturated, for hours or days, high winds can start pushing over trees, fences, and other structures. Weak, old, or compromised structures can also be damaged or destroyed with winds below hurricane-force. In fact, this is what happened for most of Central Florida. Sustained tropical storm-force winds between 40-65 mph caused the most damage to newly planted trees, older structures, mobile homes, siding, roofs, windows, and signs. Certainly, a few embedded tornadoes with briefly higher wind gusts added to the damage during Hurricane Irma.

Our measurement network doesn’t cover every place on the surface, so we’re missing important data and no single measurement is going to be adequate to broadly state storm characteristics. Both the winds near the eye and winds that extend from the eye should be discussed in the context of possibly being less intense than the overall category given to a particular hurricane. For accuracy purposes, it also makes sense to update the category of a hurricane as it passes through a point. Without doing this, as it stands, much of Florida was told it would be hit by a Category 5, but never saw any such associated damage, especially inland. Again, too much focus on the category, without context, causes both underestimation and overestimation of damage and casualties. This is particularly important when hospitals, transportation, and utilities officials are making ongoing plans. It’s also important to maintain a certain level of public trust.

Exaggeration & Public Trust

As with any disaster, media exaggeration happens. However, the more officials tell people “they’re not going to survive, if they stay” and then it doesn’t happen, the more people start to ignore warnings. Weather warnings have already included strong “call to action” language, which is justified. Blatant exaggeration that isn’t based on science is unjustified and really damaging to public trust.

Numerous reporters, national networks, and even some public officials highly exaggerated expected damage and casualties. After the storm, many went on television and very clearly stated they overestimated the impacts. Although it’s an honest move to state you overestimated something, it shouldn’t have happened to this extent. In fact, this might also partially explain why more people refuse to evacuate, even after being told to evacuate by officials. We end up with a Cry Wolf syndrome, if this continues. Again, our problem is too many people aren’t communicating clearly and too many don’t understand basic risk and preparedness.

We cannot blame the public for staying behind, especially to remain with their family, valuables, and property – it’s all they have in life. Those without the means to travel also have limited options. Calling the public stupid for staying at their homes doesn’t help anyone. Force isn’t the answer to a science and communication problem, especially in a free country. We need to work on communicating just the facts to the public and other officials.

Part of the problem is also a large group of people that just parrot what they hear, without checking for accuracy. This is often the case with damage estimates and expected hurricane impacts. The public views this as more than annoying. Unfortunately, social media spreads misinformation and exaggeration. It should be emphasized, as much as possible, that people understand exactly what impacts are likely, not in a theoretical sense, but in a realistic, real-time estimate, based on a specific time and location. The impacts will not be the same for everyone and we should not act like one measurement applies to all.

Climate Perspective

Blindly using a single disaster for political gain is wrong. Many political figures are turning climatology into an identity politics issue. Climatology is not a political platform or religion, it’s a scientific study with extensive evidence behind it. Science doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. Scientists have tried to explain – with undeniable proof – that climate change is occurring. However, because of political biases, both sides are clouding the climate issue. This phenomena might be because so many scientifically-illiterate exist within Congress. To be fair, both the “left” and “right” have equally unscientific rhetoric coming from them. Both sides treat climatology as a cult, but it isn’t.

The truth is, climate is changing and humans play a role. Among most of the experts in climatology (>95%), this debate is generally settled. If 95 out of 100 doctors said you had cancer, would you believe them or the 5 that didn’t? It may be difficult to hold an informed position about climate change without a basic science background and a climatology course.

What’s not fully understood is just how much of a role humans play and what exactly can be done to completely reverse the negative impacts. However, scientists have scientific solutions, that also solve the public health crisis of pollution, namely to use cleaner and renewable energy resources and reduce waste. We know that there are things we can do to improve our energy grid and air quality and they might not be popular for certain conventional business models. At some point, we have to embrace science and accept that modern times require us to leave the past behind, especially outdated ways of thinking and living.

The surface of Earth and its oceans are warming. We would expect more intense hurricanes as a result. Climate is a perspective of averaged weather over several decades or more, typically a human lifespan. Climate has been warming since the Industrial Revolution. More than coincidentally, air pollution has also been rising, causing millions to die every year. There certainly are things we can do as intelligent humans, but only if we don’t let political biases cloud the actual science. We would expect more storms like Hurricane Irma, in the future.

America’s Weather Model Performed Slightly Worse than European

Two models were repeatedly discussed during Irma and Harvey: the European Center for Medium range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) and Global Forecast System (GFS). Each of these provide great weather information, especially days ahead of time. The GFS is a weather forecast model produced by the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), funded by the US government. Meteorologists already knew (for years) that the GFS doesn’t perform as well as the ECMWF.

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The GFS model has less resolution, but did generally predict the path of Irma.
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The higher resolution of the ECMWF model showed an accurate representation of Irma as it hit southern Florida.

Ben Alonzo is an earth and atmospheric science professor. He says some of the concerns about the US weather forecasting system are valid.

Alonzo says, “NCEP data shows the GFS and ECMWF have both improved over time. However, the ECMWF does preform slightly better than the GFS. This is because of more advanced computing power, better input initialization data, higher resolution, and a better algorithm. To put this into a simplified perspective, the GFS preforms around 88% and the ECMWF performs at about 90%. This is determined by forecast verification correlation (0.00 weak, 1.00 strong). No single model will ever be a 100% accurate representation of the atmosphere. Each model also has its own tendencies over the other. This doesn’t mean the GFS is worthless, it just means improvement is possible. Most people that aren’t looking at the actual numbers never see the difference. A real difference exists and it could be addressed by fixing the GFS initialization, computing power, more data sources, and tweaking a better algorithm.”

Overemphasis of models is not a good idea, especially during a real-time event.

Model vs. Real-time

During an actual emergency event, it’s important to focus on real-time resources first. During Irma, far too many people were showing 12, 24, and 48 hour tracks. Then, people would turn to radar and suggest that the track be changed. Changing a hurricane track every 10 minutes would be utter chaos, especially when protocols and potentially billions of dollars of processes and procedures ride on it.

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The National Hurricane Center’s projected Irma path.

Meteorologists can see near real-time progression and may internally discuss deviations, but external mass communication has to have some kind of unity and consistency. It seems as if the people were more focused on the eye than the track or cone of uncertainty that was given. This caused people to make wild guesses as to where Irma’s eye would pass next. Such hurricanes can be hundreds of miles wide and the eye can quickly reform at another location. The interaction of mainland upper-air fields and Irma’s movement over land quickly decreased its intensity and slightly changed its course.

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Multiple models suggest different tracks for Irma.

Throughout the storm, meteorologists kept repeating that they had high confidence in the track, but some deviation was possible. Irma did indeed proceed close to its projected path, of course, with some understandable deviations. This might be another learning experience for public communicators to focus more on the cone than the eye. These are storms that impact wide areas and the fact that they can and do often deviate must be emphasized.

One area for improvement might be the open and transparent discussion about present and future locations of a hurricane track. Once a hurricane has deviated so much in position or decreased so much in intensity, it’s important that all vital resources be notified so they can resume normal activity, if it is safe to do so. This is a difficult position to be put into for officials. Imagine a small group of government meteorologists making the wrong decision and then taking all of the blame from millions of angry people, officials, and the weight of the world on their shoulders. Life and property are at stake, which is why, and rightfully so, many professionals choose to be safer than sorry. However, our national understanding and attitude towards risk and preparedness must change. Life will always involve risk, and we should accept it, rather than try to erase it (not reality) from life. The way we can accomplish this is by greater communication, more education about preparedness, response, and storm tracks.

It’s important to take a look at actual measurements to get an idea of what actually happened in Central Florida.

Moisture & Wind Shear

Although hurricanes take on a similar structure, each one has its own unique look. Shear is probably one of the key factors into determining the strength and lifetime of a hurricane. Uniform winds are important to maintain a hurricane. When upper level winds go against the flow of the hurricane, they can shear the top of thunderstorms off, which also changes the flow of latent heat. Weather analysis at 250mb showed this occurring by the afternoon of September 10, 2017. This was another sign that Irma would weaken by the time it moved further north. Too much shear (>20kts) in the 200-850mb layer results in less focused tropospheric heat. Cold upper level wind from a mid-latitude trough will also cause drops in intensity. Ongoing surface analysis showed Irma moving out of a zone of low level 700mb and 850mb moisture (>= 16C).

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9/10/2017 8pm ET 850 MB UA map.
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9/10/2017 8pm ET 700 MB UA map.
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9/10/2017 8pm ET 250 MB UA map.

Surface Winds

Much of Central Florida experienced sustained tropical storm-force winds through Sunday night and early Monday morning (9/10-9/11). Tropical storm winds are below hurricane strength, between 39 to 73 mph. Winds are measured with meteorological instruments above the around and are averaged in a 60 second (1 minute) period when applied to the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale. Brief higher wind gusts reached Category 1 speeds (minimal hurricane).

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Meteorologist Ben Alonzo watches NEXRAD and surface station reports during Hurricane Irma.

A review of Central Florida METAR stations shows maximum winds of 44 mph in Deland, Florida, 71 mph in Fort Pierce, Florida, and 56 mph at Orlando Executive. Orlando, Florida’s highest sustained winds were seen around the early morning hours of 9/11. Peak wind gusts included 89 mph in Fort Pierce, Florida, 79 mph in Orlando, Florida, and 67 mph in Kissimmee, Florida. Most other stations report winds (non-official) within +/- 5 mph of the above readings.

It’s important to note that it doesn’t take hurricane-force winds to cause damage. Already saturated ground loosens roots, increasing the risk of entire trees falling down. Much of the debris reviewed through Central Florida is consistent with winds between 40-60 mph. Several newly planted trees were easily uprooted because their root system didn’t get established and the ground was already saturated. In this photo example (see below) a rather new tree fell over in front of a restaurant in Orange County, Florida.

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This tree was already compromised because the roots weren’t deep enough and the ground was saturated.

Throughout Central Florida, several tree branches and some trees were pushed over by a combination of winds and already saturated soil. In some areas, weak structural material (thin sheets of metal), hard plastic signs, and single-pane glass panels broke. Pieces could be seen as the winds probably first vibrated the glass and plastic into pieces. Once the structure was compromised, the winds simply pushed the remaining pieces out. This type of damage is consistent with winds between 40-60 mph.

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Most of the Central Florida damage ULTRA TechLife has reviewed appears to be minimal with a few pockets of moderate damage (moderate primarily near coastal areas).

Occasional higher gusts were recorded around Central Florida.

Tornadoes

Hurricane Irma produced several tornadoes. It’s well-known that hurricanes can create numerous tornadoes, which often occur with little to no warning. Statistically, most of these tornadoes are in the EF-0 to EF-1 scale rating. These are considered weak, but that doesn’t mean that destruction cannot occur or that there is no danger to humans. Such tornadoes are a huge threat to mobile home communities and weak structures.

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9/10/2017 tornado reports via SPC.

The reports of tornadoes (seen by a person) may be less than the number that actually occurred. In a hurricane, heavy rains obstruct the view of any possible tornadoes. The existing curfew may also mean no less people were out that could have seen and reported a tornado. Because Irma entered around the evening hours with little to no lightning, it was further difficult to see or report any tornado before it hit.

In Central Florida, at least eight tornadoes were confirmed within Brevard, Volusia and Lake Counties. A few tornadoes were considered strong, such as the Mims 9/10/2017 EF-2 tornado that occurred around 5:49 PM EDT. Most of Hurricane Irma’s tornadoes were EF-0 to EF-1 strength. A majority of these tornadoes lasted between 60-120 seconds. This goes with what we know about the nature of hurricane-based tornadic activity.

Why did Irma produce so many tornadoes?

This question was asked during multiple radio interviews. First, tornadoes are nothing new for hurricanes and Irma’s path put much of Central Florida at higher risk for tornadic activity. Being in the right upper quadrant of a hurricane that has a movement component facing you creates a maximum dynamic risk for tornadoes. Unlike Midwest monster tornadoes, a hurricane can have shallow embedded supercells that inherit spin from the atmosphere, which draws warm moist air from the ocean and create a unique shear environments as the cells cross from over the ocean to land. This is exactly what we saw during Hurricane Irma. Each hurricane path is unique and may hit in a different geographic position that others, which means the tornado environment is kind of unique.

The unfortunate thing is that the tornadoes we see from hurricane occur so quickly that it’s hard to warn for them. You certainly don’t have storm chasers or helicopters out covering the tornado live for everyone to see.

Most of the cost from both Harvey and Irma wasn’t wind, it comes from flooding.

Rainfall & Flooding

Rainfall totals for East Central Florida come from calculations that include the morning of 9/09 until the morning of 9/12. This is the period of time when rainfall from Hurricane Irma would be associated with accumulation measurements.

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A crop field in Seminole County, Florida flooded by a few inches during Hurricane Irma.

Weather stations around the area captured somewhat high amounts of rainfall. For example, around 13.74″ was recorded near Palm Shores, Florida in Brevard County. A station at Indian River, Florida, measured 14.15″ of rainfall in Indian River County. In Orange County, the highest rainfall measured was 13.79″ near Union Park, Florida. The station at Orlando International Airport measured only 7.22″ of rainfall. In Seminole County, Florida, several Oviedo stations reported rainfall between 12.06-12.14″ for the duration of Irma. In Volusia County, the highest rainfall reported was near Mims with 12.87″ of rain. Some instruments are collected for information purposes but may not be official data (cooperation stations).

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NASA’s hurricane rainfall estimates for Irma.

The large amount of retention ponds, concrete (impermeable), clogged drainage systems, rivers, lakes, and coastal zones put much of Florida at high risk of flooding, regardless of the intensity of a hurricane. Hours of rainfall can quickly accumulate and flood low-lying areas. In some cases, this results in roads that are not passable, which causes crews major delays in restoring power, bringing food and water, and emergency services to the affected area.

Flooding is a major issue America continues to ignore.

Failed Flood Insurance & Mitigation Programs

The US has a ridiculous system of insurance coverage, federal insurance programs, and insurance payout oversight. The nation is already near bankruptcy and most citizens are living paycheck to paycheck. Somehow, an astonishing amount of insurance money is being paid out to people that are repeatedly making claims, rebuilding in the same flooded areas, and along beaches that are continuously hit by hurricanes. Many of the insurance claims exceed 10, 20, even 30 times in just a matter of a few decades. Some people have made claims that far exceed the value of their home and personal items. The examples of this ridiculous and failed insurance system will astonish you.

One home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is valued at $55k, but it has flooded at least 40 times, resulting in over $428k in insurance claims. Another home in St Louis, Missouri has flooded over 30 times, resulting in over $608k in insurance claims. A home in Houston, Texas received more than $1 million in insurance claims, despite being worth only $74k at its appraisal value. The government seems to be supporting a failed insurance system. This information comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which oversees the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Corpus Christi, Texas. As much as $30 billion in damages are estimated. Most of the damage comes from flooding. Only 40% of the area is covered by insurance, and most of those covered will fall on federal insurance monies. The NFIP is already in a state of uncertainty. Again, the insurance payouts will likely far exceed the value of homes, in many cases. The outrageous spending, lack of oversight, and ridiculous rebuilding in high risk flood areas will only speed up the insolvency of this failed insurance program.

“When someone says ‘it looks like a warzone’ when they look at damage to shacks and older homes that were built directly on a beach… feet from the Atlantic Ocean… in a hurricane… it’s basically like saying you’re surprised that a building was completely destroyed even though you build in the ocean. Storm surge quickly runs over the typical location of a beach waterline. It doesn’t take a Category 5 hurricane to completely destroy a home, shack, or boat that is basically in the unsettled water at the time of a storm. A combination of waves and wind will destroy buildings that are underwater, especially with little to no buffer between the ocean and a structure. Environmental science teaches us to account for natural buffers and use them – not destroy them. Building further inland might be a very basic solution to this growing insurance problem. Hurricanes are not rare and their frequency may continue to increase because of climate change. Science tells us wind and water will destroy, but we continue to rebuild in the same locations, file more insurance claims, and cause a significant premium increase for everyone else. There are higher building standards and wind engineering techniques, but at some point it just isn’t worth the risk or cost of building directly onto such areas.” – Ben Alonzo, ULTRATechLife.com

Roy Wright is FEMA’s Deputy Administrator for Insurance and Mitigation. He has oversight of the NFIP and has already stated that it’s $25 billion in debt. Wright also says he doesn’t see any way that money will ever be repaid.

A study found more than 30,000 “severe repetitive loss properties” have been insured through the NFIP, according to FEMA data acquired by the NRDC. Many of these properties have flooded an average five times every two to three years. The government is forcing failure, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

We must embrace science and stop rebuilding in areas that have been flooding so frequently. There should be an incentive to build inland or to a higher standard in coastal areas. We must stop ridiculous spending that astronomically exceeds the actual value of property and goods lost. Flood control systems must be bolstered. Buffers should be built and/or replenished, which helps reduce the impact of flood waters and high winds. Examples of natural buffers include trees, plants, sand dunes, etc.

We should also take a look at what “rare” means, in terms of flooding. A 10, 50, 100, or 500-year flood may need to be further defined in the context of climate change. This requires big changes to our public policies.

Both man-made and natural disasters continue to test our policies and infrastructure.

Infrastructure Failure

The US is no stranger to natural disasters, but it seems as if our already aging and broken infrastructure is getting continuously reduced to rubble through ongoing natural disasters. Our power grid, transportation, health, water, food, and communications system is outdated, inadequate, and inefficient. Natural disasters test the both national and individual preparedness capabilities. Every major disaster and the 9/11 terrorist attack were very clear signs of infrastructure failure and lack of individual preparedness.

A major part of modernized infrastructure involves the scientific concepts of resilience and sustainability. Resilience is the ability of a system, group, or individual to survive, adapt and or grow when faced with any life event – including hurricanes. Resilience requires modernized infrastructure, a prepared public, ability for individuals to live independently, and an adequate education to understand how one might best plan, prepare, and respond to unforeseen events, disasters, and life emergencies. Resilient individuals and communities can adapt, survive, and quickly recover from nearly anything. Sustainability is a scientific way of living that ensures the needs of the present are met in a way that doesn’t compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainability also means reducing inefficiency, waste, risk, and utilizing natural resources using scientific knowledge, securing the world’s current and future natural resources.

We should not be too general with the idea of resilience. Scientific resilience is more than people being nice or volunteering after a disaster. Public figures often use the term in an unscientific context. Resilience, when implemented, means less power interruptions, decentralized and stronger grids, more alternative clean energy resources, less pollution, more independent survival skills and resources, and major reductions in risk, loss, and property damage. Power outages should be rare. Food and water systems should be adequate. Healthcare should be adequate. Communications should be reliable, even during severe weather. This might require new ideas about a grid, beyond burying above ground lines, for example. We are far from a scientifically resilient and sustainable nation, according to nearly every scientific finding and expert opinion. Improvement doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s desperately needed because our future depends on it.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives the US a D+ in their infrastructure report card. ASCE says, “our nation is at a crossroads. Deteriorating infrastructure is impeding our ability to compete in the thriving global economy, and improvements are necessary to ensure our country is built for the future.” America’s infrastructure is literally falling apart, reports CBS News.

Officials say US infrastructure is aging, becoming more expensive to fix, and is failing at an alarming rate. The rapid building of new structures without adequate environmental consideration (e.g. building in already flooded areas) is increasing cost and unnecessary risk. The US is far from fail-safe infrastructure. Ideally, the power grid, transportation, security, food, water, health, and communications system would be safe-to-fail, integrating multiple redundancy methodologies, decentralized operations

Individual Lessons Learned

Hopefully, everyone learned much from Hurricane Irma. For example, more people found out that a single flashlight or set of batteries isn’t enough for a hurricane – they were in the dark before the storm even hit. Those without a supply of non-perishable food and water experienced how difficult it was to find it after a minimal hurricane. Imagine the difficulty of finding food, water, and fuel during after a direct hit from a major hurricane.

Businesses should also learn from Irma. The issues of what should be stocked before and after a major hurricane should be discussed. A combination of product surges and public awareness would probably improve the lack of food and water resources we experienced this month. Logistics are complicated, but a problem exists and it must be addressed.

Local governments must also examine their planning and response procedures, including all important officials, experts, scientists, law enforcement, military, emergency management, academic, health, emergency medical, fire, utility, and communications. There are multiple policies that require immediate language changes and adaption, especially before the next major disaster strikes. It’s critical that any policy be based on sound science, not fear, emotion, or outdated traditions.

The federal government and US President must address our failed infrastructure and importance of science expertise. Much of our failed policies are a result of unscientific practices. People that lived in low lying areas that are frequently flooded will likely consider evacuating before the next hurricane. Those that unfortunately lost houses must think about relocating and acknowledging that the future flooding risk isn’t worth the broken cycle of “build, hurricane, insurance claim, and repeat.” We must also demand Congress to act on flood insurance reform that is based on sound science, reasonable risk reduction, and financial oversight. Science is giving us clear indications that our government is failing us, when it comes to funding and supporting scientific policies, research, and operations.

Saving Grace

The one critical element that saved, calmed, and reassured most people in Central Florida was internet service through cell providers. Smartphone coverage was spotty, but it did work on and off throughout the hurricane. People were able to text and make voice calls. The ability to get visual weather information was very helpful, especially when there was no other way to get information. The power was out, there was no television, no cable, no home internet, and most people didn’t have a weather radio. If there was a longer curfew or stronger storm, the attitudes of millions would have changed once their only battery died.

In times of emergency, some providers even gave those in Irma’s damage zone free data amounts. For example, Republic Wireless automatically gave select customers 2 GB of additional free data because they knew people would be busy getting information, which requires more bandwidth. Such practices should be commended because they recognize the value of the public being able to obtain information in times of emergency. Some people just wanted to communicate with family, as a way to stay calm and get assurance that they would survive the storm. For many, this was their first hurricane and people fear what they don’t understand or have experience with – totally understandable. Thankfully, smartphones really kept people connected. We have to make sure the smartphone networks don’t go the same way the rest of our failing infrastructure did.

From now on, ULTRA TechLife will also specifically recommend a smartphone charging brick for disaster preparedness kits. Smartphone models that allow users to change the battery will also be of great utility in times of emergency without commercial power.

Final Thoughts

Our nation needs to fully embrace science. Science doesn’t care about politics, feelings, or political correctness. The sooner we fully embrace science, as a nation, the greater the chance we improve life today and tomorrow. The utility of modern science is very evidence in medicine, meteorology, building, and our space program, for example. It’s unfortunate that many have politicized science and climate issues, many without any formal education or understanding of it. We must embrace science because our national security, health, education, and economy depend on whether we have a strong scientific, critical thinking public. Science will help us reduce risk and survive future storms.

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Author: Ben Alonzo is a scientist, tech expert, professor, and director of ULTRATechLife.com. He’s currently CEO of the tech firm Storm Sector. Ben holds an M.S. in Geoscience, M.S. in Nutrition and Health Sciences, and a B.S. in Geoscience. He’s a highly-rated professor that teaches several courses at multiple colleges, including earth science, environmental science, oceanography, meteorology, and public health. His diverse background also spans network and computer systems, healthcare, telecommunications, weather forecasting, consumer electronics, computer programming, and web development. Ben holds numerous professional certifications, ranging from information technology to healthcare and emergency medical technician. He’s been writing about science and technology for over 10 years.
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