Wed | Nov 25, 2020

Mark Wignall | Hurricane Irma and her angry friends

Published:Wednesday | September 6, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Like the different people you meet each day, hurricanes have their individual personalities, but for you to determine one's unique make-up, it is necessary that you meet face to face and spend some time with each other.

It is, of course, not out of choice because you are forced to endure the company of a phenomenon that you would rather not be with. As you read this now, residents in the tiny islands of Barbuda, St Bart's and St Martin will have been faced with the brutal nature of Hurricane Irma and have formed in their minds adequate descriptors of its violence and destruction.

And as Lovindeer did with Hurricane Gilbert in September 1988, people will write songs of it, and lampoon it all while championing the dogged nature of humans and our ability to overcome the disasters brought on us by the forces of nature.

As you read this, the monster Irma has likely not lost any of her Cat 5 strength and is probably carving a sure path WNW to the north of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola with its ultimate path of destruction either somewhere in Florida or along the southern coast of the United States (US). With luck on our side it will veer east and head out to sea.

Irma is definitely in the big sister category. A week or so ago, she sent us a message and she asked that her older brother Harvey personally deliver it by hand. He was the wayward one, tarrying for long when residents in and around Houston, Texas, simply wanted him to move, and move now. But, he sat down and brought about the worst disaster that the US mainland has ever had from a hurricane.

Estimates of costs range anywhere from US$150 billion to US$200 billion. Even if the stock of houses on the small islands in the Lesser Antilles survive the battering and the ferocity of the unrelenting wind from Irma, it is hardly likely that electricity systems will fare as well. As happened in Jamaica in September 1988, for all practical purposes, the entire physical network of light poles in the JPS grid were blown flat to the ground.

Trying desperately to emulate the evil grandness of Irma is little brother JosÈ wandering west but not having the feet to overtake Irma or indeed follow her faithfully. For that, the people in the Caribbean will be eternally grateful.

At Category 5 and packing gusts of up to 225mph, Irma is, like Gilbert, persistent. She will roar once, then twice, then rise up in a shriek like 10,000 trains heading west and at times for up to 20 seconds until the concrete walls tremble and a human dweller withdraws into the safest space of unmitigated and raw fear.

The hurricane will batter a tall light post or a tree and ram into them multiple times until they give up and fall flat or simply get blown away. The same with the roofs of houses. So far, we in Jamaica are lucky because that's all there is to it.

A most pressing consideration is that our luck is not that easily compartmentalised because we have friends and relatives living in the Lesser Antilles and certainly on the US mainland, including Florida.




Once a hurricane enters the Caribbean, the guessing game is on. If it is low down on the latitudinal scale, say below 128N, even with its tendency to veer between westerly and WNW, Jamaica is in the cross hairs. This has been my observation since looking at these systems from 1988. But, of course, I am no meteorologist so, take that for what it is.

We are by no means out of the woods. There is still all of September and the months of October and November. Even though we expect cyclonic activity to taper off in those months, with the increasing influence of climate change on these systems, we ought not be surprised if the unexpected occurs.

It is quite possible and probably likely that Jamaica will experience some of the outer bands of Irma at tropical storm strength. That, of course, is dependent on the monster's northerly track.

For now, be prepared for the rest of the season.