■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE
Would you believe we have been dealing with Irma in our daily lives since Monday, Sept. 4? That was the day, at about 9:20 a.m. when we first received word that this particular hurricane might affect our island. The spaghetti models were aimed at Southwest Florida, and people were urged to fill their gas tanks, buy batteries and stock up on water. Indeed, it has been a long 11 days, but so jumbled that we wanted to break down the timeline of how things have happened.
We are including not only the weather information as it came in from NOAA, but island news as well. In particular, we are mentioning those businesses and people who came forward in positive ways to help everyone here.
At 7:57 a.m. on September 4 the NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft found Hurricane Irma a little stronger than the last time they checked. Data from the aircraft showed that maximum sustained winds had increased to nearly 120 mph with higher gusts. She was a Category 3 at that time, and additional strengthening was expected. Hurricane force winds extended outward up to 30 miles from the center, and tropical storm force winds extended outward by 140 miles. She was positioned about 610 miles east of the Leeward Islands and moving west-southwest near 14 mph. A turn toward the west was expected, followed by a northwest turn late on Tuesday.
At 11:16 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5 NOAA announced Irma was a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 180 mph. Forecasters thought she might be peaking in strength and lose some when she hit the Bahamas and Florida. At that time the five-day cone included our area, as well as three-quarters of the Florida population. At 4 p.m. Charlotte County Emergency Management announced that while they hadn’t opened shelters yet, special needs residents should consider evacuating. They said people on the barrier islands should have hurricane plans in place and to stand by for possible evacuation orders.
By mid-morning the Boca Grande Fire Department had a line out the door for hurricane hang tags and it continued until Thursday afternoon. No more tags were issued on Friday. Discussions began about when and if the bridge would be shut down to vehicle traffic, and it was determined for sure that the bridge would close to boat traffic when winds reached 40 mph.
Around the same time it was announced that Hurricane Irma was the strongest hurricane of all time in the Atlantic Ocean, with winds of 185 mph. The cone of possibility shifted even more west across the state during the 11 p.m. update, right about the time Irma was going to hit the Lesser Antilles.
Lee County announced all schools, including The Island School, were closed on Thursday and Friday. Charlotte County announced Thursday and Friday closings as well, while Sarasota County announced Friday closings only.
The Barnichol had been sold out of many window shuttering supplies and generators at that point, but announced a new shipment was coming in as soon as possible. People on the island were most definitely preparing.
September 6, 8:45 a.m., the news announced I-75 northbound was already packed and the cone of possibility shifted more toward the east. The 11 a.m. update showed Irma headed for Miami and Fort Lauderdale, then north on I-95. Fugates closed for the storm, and park administration announced Gasparilla Island State Park, Don Pedro, Stump Pass and Cayo Costa would be closed as of 5 p.m. on Thursday until further notice.
At 4 p.m. Charlotte County Emergency Management announced that while they hadn’t opened shelters yet, special needs residents should consider evacuating. They said people on the barrier islands should have hurricane plans in place and to stand by for possible evacuation orders.
Most island churches announced they would be closed for services that weekend.
As of 5 p.m. the Florida Highway Patrol announced a very high volume of traffic on the interstates. No mandatory evacuations were set yet and no shelters were open. Forecasters predicted mainland landfall in Miami and Fort Lauderdale with winds of 145 mph. Tropical storm force winds were predicted for this area, peaking late Saturday night.
At 6:40 p.m. the Boca Grande Community Center announced that Lee County was making them close at 5 p.m. that day until further notice.
Sandbag distribution was announced for island residents that afternoon at Wheeler Road ballfield, and that night as of 11 p.m. all spaghetti models still pointed Irma far east of us, with some over Miami and a few out in the Atlantic.
On Thursday, Sept. 7 the 5 a.m. update showed that Irma was still headed toward Miami, still a strong Category 5 hurricane. The 11 a.m. update concurred, but included the Lake Okeechobee area in their warnings. By that time Irma had taken 13 lives in the Caribbean, and the death toll was climbing.
At 1:30 p.m. Charlotte County Emergency Management recommended residents residing on Don Pedro, Knight Island, Palm Island, Little Gasparilla and Gasparilla Island and residents living by the coast in mobile homes should start evacuation proceedings. It was only a recommendation.
The 2 p.m. update showed Irma moving at 16 mph between the north coast of Hispaniola and the Turks and Caicos Islands with maximum sustained winds at 175 mph and even higher gusts.
At 4 p.m. The Innlet announced they would allow anyone who needed to pull their boats out to do so at their ramp, and to put them back in, no charge.
At 5:38 Lee County Emergency Management announced that Gasparilla Island and the surrounding barrier islands were under a mandatory evacuation beginning at 9 a.m. the next day.
As Smitty would say, still plenty of time.
The forecast that evening noticed a wobble toward the west.
At 8:15 p.m. the owners of Hudson’s Grocery announced they would be closing on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. As always, though, they were open as long as they could be and opened as soon as they could for island residents.
The 11 p.m. update showed a hurricane watch for our area. The track had shifted more to the west and the storm had weakened to a mere 170 mph storm.
On Friday, Sept. 8 the 2 a.m. advisory showed the storm still moving more westerly at 16 mph with wind speeds of 160-170 mph. The 5 a.m. advisory showed the storm had weakened a bit more, with sustained maximum winds of 150 mph. It was expected to hit somewhere in Florida as a Category 4. Mandatory evacuations were called for Zone A in Charlotte County.
At 8 a.m. it was announced emergency lanes would open up near the Florida/Georgia line for the interstate system. Fl511.com became a household name. The Boca Grande Health Clinic announced they were closing that day.
The Pink Pony announced they would be closing that day, but would stay open for a few hours to serve those who were still around.
At 11 a.m. Irma was moving off the east coast of Cuba west-northwest at 14 mph with a minimum pressure of 927 millibars and maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.
At noon Charlotte County opened their first emergency shelters at Kingsway Elementary and Liberty Elementary in Port Charlotte.
Grocery stores had announced early closings. Walmart closed at noon and Publix announced they would close early as well. Gas and water were not to be found throughout the whole area.
At 2:45 p.m. the swing bridge was closed to boat traffic and locked in place. Tolls were suspended until further notice. The Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority announced they would shut down their administration building and toll booth gates would soon be lowered until after the storm had passed.
At 3 p.m. NOAA said Irma had sustained winds of 155 mph with a less well-formed eye than before. They posted hurricane warnings for Collier, Hendry and Glades Counties. Gasparilla Island was still under a hurricane watch, with a potential storm surge of four to six feet.
At 4 p.m. Chief C.W. Blosser from the Boca Grande Fire Department sent out a notice stating an evacuation order had been issued for Lee County residents in zone A, that Lee County shelters were filling up and that first responders were already beginning to gather in Georgia, anticipating coming to Florida as soon as the storm passed. We had a 50 percent chance of tropical storm force winds, a 50 to 60 percent chance of hurricane force winds and a 30 percent chance of six to eight foot storm surge. We were also out of sandbags.
As of the 5 p.m. update things were looking worse for our area, and Irma was expected to still be a Category 4 storm as it brushed Cuba. Winds in excess of 140 to 150 mph were expected in the Florida Keys within hours, and the hurricane could be just south of Fort Myers with 145 mph winds at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Storm surge still showed potential three to six foot water.
At 7 p.m. island cell phones started screeching out hurricane warnings as our status was upgraded. Hurricane conditions were stretching out across the Bahamas.
As of 9 p.m. potential rainfall amounts were predicted for our area at around eight inches. The storm had slowed and landfall was expected in the Keys at 8 a.m. on Sunday. The storm was showing a potential course of US 41 through our area after hitting near Naples and Marco Island. Surge of five to eight feet was predicted for coastal Lee County, with a potential one-foot surge in the inner part of the Cape Haze Peninsula.
At 11 p.m. Irma had sustained winds of 160 with gusts up to 195 mph. She was moving west at 13 mph and had yet to make her turn to the north. With the storm slowing down even more, forecasters were worried storm surge would be a bigger problem. The cone had shifted even more west to include the Gulf of Mexico.
On Saturday, Sept. 9 we woke up to mandatory evacuations for Zone B in Charlotte County, which included almost all of the southern Cape Haze Peninsula. Tornado watches were in effect and tropical storm force winds were expected to possibly begin that evening in our area. The eye was scheduled to come near us Sunday night. Monday was expected to still expected to arrive with tropical storm force winds and 15 to 20 foot seas.
At 9:45 a.m. the Boca Grande Fire Department said they would have their equipment off the island by that night, and that included law enforcement personnel. Everyone was about to be on their own on the island until the storm subsided.
At 2:34 p.m. water service to all of Manasota Key, all of Englewood and all barrier islands was shut down to prevent possible harm to water employees.
At 5:13 p.m. the Boca Grande Fire Department announced tropical storm force winds would begin between 4 and 6 a.m. Sunday morning, with hurricane winds between 2 p.m. on Saturday and 2 a.m. on Sunday. Island surge conditions were forecasted to possibly be 10 to 15 feet, depending on what time exactly the storm came by us and how high or low the tides were at the time.
At 5 p.m. NOAA announced a possible landfall for Irma in Fort Myers. Hurricane winds were supposed to come at 7 a.m. on Sunday as the storm had slowed even more.
At 6:42 p.m. the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office announced a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The order also restricted the sale of alcoholic beverages in Charlotte County, leading to a storm of a whole different kind.
At 8:12 p.m. a flash flood warning was issued for Lee County. Outer bands of Irma were starting to creep across the skies and light to heavy rain was falling sporadically on the island. Rain was predicted to increase all night long, as were the winds. The eye of the storm was once again well defined and Irma was moving very slowly as she started to make her turn to the north, toward us.
Winds in Key West were starting to pick up to 40 mph with gusts up to 60 mph. Miami had sustained winds of 55 mph. The storm was still 200 miles south of Fort Myers.
At 11 p.m. Englewood Community Hospital started to evacuate their patients and staff.
On Sunday, Sept. 10 at midnight NOAA announced Irma might be making her way north toward the Gulf of Mexico, which would bring her more offshore of our coast. Her strength when she reached us was predicted to be 60 to 90 mph sustained winds with gusts of up to 90 to 120 mph. Approximately 10 to 18 inches of rain was predicted.
At 12:45 a.m. the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a statement which said Irma was now a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds at around 90 mph and gusts around 130 mph.
At 3:47 a.m. Irma was still south of Key West, taking her time and strengthening a little with potential sustained winds of 60 to 100 mph and gusts from 100 to 140 mph. The Florida Keys were experiencing wave heights of 30 to 40 feet at that time. She was scheduled to make landfall in Southwest Florida that afternoon or into the night, depending on her speed.
The 5 a.m. forecast update showed Irma had renewed strength and she was labeled a Category 4 storm. She still had not made landfall in the Keys. At that time her eye was scheduled to come right over Gasparilla Island.
At 10:19 a.m. the fire department issued a notice that tropical storm force winds could begin at 10 a.m. and hurricane winds could start as early as 2 p.m. and continue for hours. Storm surge predicted at 10 feet.
At noon NOAA said Irma was still a well-defined Category 4 hurricane moving north at 10 mph with 130 mph winds in the eye. It was predicted to make landfall on the Florida mainland in Marco Island at approximately 2 p.m.
At 3:35 p.m. Irma made landfall in Marco Island as a Category 3 hurricane. She was moving north at 12 mph with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph.
At 5 p.m. Lee County issued a notice stating all facets of emergency aid had been requested and were on standby, and that a baby had been born at one of the shelters that day. FPL had 17,000 workers on standby.
By 6 p.m. NOAA reported that Irma had weakened to a Category 2 and was wobbling once again. At 7:20 p.m. Irma was traveling in a more northeasterly direction and was almost over LaBelle. The eyewall was scheduled to travel over Arcadia around 9 p.m. People in Boca Grande and the Cape Haze Peninsula started to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Around 7 p.m. a video made by island resident Reed Sligar showed up on YouTube, showing the world that the island was full of downed vegetation but still standing proud. He also posted a few more videos, and we appreciate it very much to have been able to have eyes on the island in the thick of the storm.
At 8:06 p.m. storm surge was creeping up on Fort Myers, after inundating Marco Island. Irma was moving north at 14 mph with winds at 110 mph.
By 8:51 p.m. everyone in this area realized the worst was over. There was no storm surge here, but a lot of flooding due to rainfall. By 9 p.m. there was still no storm surge present.
Our island was spared by Hurricane Irma on the anniversary of the day her big sister, Donna, slammed us in 1960.
On Monday, Sept. 11 the fire department started going door to door doing damage assessment. They found no critical structural damage, a few downed power lines and water main breaks.
Sad notes include the fact the pink elephant is no longer flying on the weather vane (either they took him down early or he’s vacationing somewhere in a 50-mile radius), and we lost some of our amazing old Australian pines along the parking area across from Sister’s Restaurant. We will miss them tremendously. Banyan Street is a bit more naked, but no major damage occurred. The dunes in front of the Amory Chapel are gone, but the dunes in front of Gasparilla Island State Park are still there. That lighthouse and the Range Light are fine. There is also damage to the boardwalks at the south end, but the brand-new one in front of the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse is perfectly fine.
There was no power and no water on the island, and as of press time we have been out since. Linemen from across the country have descended upon us this Thursday afternoon, and we are 90 percent sure we will have power island-wide by Friday morning. Cell phone service is somewhat better as the CenturyLink tower is running on a generator, but still very spotty. Garbage pick-up resumed this morning here, apart from Irma waste.
People are in good spirits despite all that has happened. We were very, very fortunate to have received as minor damage as we did and we hope to be able to help our neighbors who fared much worse now that we’re on the road to recovery.