Hurricane Irma’s late swing east and inland spared Florida from catastrophic storm surge Sunday, as the huge storm shut down maritime operations and piled big tides on the Atlantic coast north to the Carolinas.
Luckily for all of Florida, the Port of Tampa suffered little damage. The Coast Guard reopened it with restrictions at 2 p.m. Tuesday, to allow a massive delivery of gasoline to fuel-starved southwest Florida.
The first of 10 tank vessels carrying petroleum products were expected to arrive between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. local time, with the rest expected within 48 hours, Port Tampa Bay officials said in a statement. The storm surge that had been feared to approach 9' in Tampa Bay instead reached 4' to 5', owing to the storm center taking a 50-mile jog inland away from the Gulf of Mexico during its northward march.
That left facilities intact, and over two days following more than 300 tanker trucks loaded fuel from Tampa terminals, according to port officials. The Coast Guard, Corps of Engineers and other agencies continued to
assess damages and waterway conditions south of the port, and the Fort Myers area remained closed under condition Zulu restrictions, said Capt. Holly Najarian, commander of Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg.
Combined tidal and rain flooding in Jacksonville, Fla., and along the St. Johns River exceeded records set during Hurricane Dora in 1965. At the Port of Jacksonville, the Coast Guard was assessing port conditions Tuesday. While the port remained closed under condition Zulu, the Jacksonville Port Authority instructed employees to return to work Wednesday. In Jacksonville neighborhoods, 356 people had to be rescued from flooding, said Mayor Lenny Curry.
Many of them were brought out by small boat teams, including local responders, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and Coast Guard Flood Punt Teams from Paducah, Ky., Huntington, W. Va., and the Lower Mississippi Tennessee. The punt teams brought out almost 120 persons, 50 pets and checked on the well-being of hundreds of other residents stranded by the flood waters.
Charleston, S.C., braced for a high tide projected for just after 12 p.m. local time — potentially 1’ to 2’ higher than Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. It came in at 9.9', well above Matthew, making it the third-highest on record. By Tuesday morning conditions relented and the port reopened.
With widespread fuel shortages in the region already from Hurricane Harvey, the Department of Homeland Security announced a one-week waiver of Jones Act restrictions for transport of refined products. That means shippers can use all options, including foreign-flag vessels, to deliver fuel.
“This is a precautionary measure to ensure we have enough fuel to support lifesaving efforts, respond to the storm, and restore critical services and critical infrastructure operations in the wake of this potentially devastating storm,” said Elaine Duke, acting DHS secretary, in announcing the decision Friday.
On the Atlantic coast, Port Miami navigation channels remained closed while National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration surveyors searched the harbor for debris with side scan sonar, according to port officials. The Coast Guard cleared truck and gate operations for the Seaboard Marine container terminal, and other port operations began reopening Tuesday afternoon.
Port Canaveral reported a preliminary assessment by emergency officials found no major damage, and that all vessels that remained in port came through the storm safely. An assessment of harbor conditions was underway while the port remained closed.
By 8 a.m. Monday, Irma had been downgraded to a tropical storm, after rampaging from the Antilles to Cuba and Florida as one of the most powerful, long-lived hurricanes on record. Gov. Rick Scott said the landfall in the Florida Keys inflicted heavy damage on the Middle and Upper Keys. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated 25% of the Keys' housing was seriously damaged or destroyed, and access was limited as damage assessments continued on bridges and Route 1, pulverized in places by the surge.
More sealift power converged on the region. Four Coast Guard cutters deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands to support relief to heavily damaged communities including St. John and St. Thomas. The 210’ medium endurance cutter Valiant, the 154’ fast response cutters Joseph Tezanos and Donald Horsley, and the 87’ Yellowfin are providing maritime security, assisting with port assessments, and transporting supplies and equipment, said Capt. Eric King, the Coast Guard Sector San Juan commander.
Miami-based Royal Caribbean International said it is deploying four ships to St. Thomas and St. Maarten to help with Irma relief efforts, delivering provisions, feeding emergency workers and picking up stranded tourists, and within days deploy another vessel to assist in the Keys and southwest Florida. One Norwegian Cruise Line vessel was scheduled to arrive at St. Thomas Monday night to pick up 2,000 tourists there.
The U.S. Navy early on dispatched the amphibious assault ship Wasp to evacuate medical patients from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the amphibious assault ships Kearsarge and Oak Hill with elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Federal Emergency Management Agency staff to aid relief efforts in the islands.
The aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima and and amphibious transport dock ship New York were close to the hurricane zone, bringing heavy airlift capability, along with the guided missile destroyer Farragut. Food and water deliveries to the U.S. Virgin Islands from the Abraham Lincoln were underway Tuesday.
After rolling over the northeastern Caribbean islands, Irma’s strength oscillated as it steamed through the Florida Straits, regaining category 5 strength over the warm surface waters, then dropping to category 3 with 125 mph sustained winds after raking northern Cuba.
With the turn northwest late Saturday, the storm as anticipated again regained strength over open waters, making landfall at Cudjoe Key as a category 4 at 9:10 a.m. Sunday, with winds of 130 mph and a barometric pressure of 929 mb.
That was the lowest pressure in southwest Florida since the destructive hurricane Donna of 1960 with 930 mb. With a track raking Florida’s west coast from Naples to Tampa, potentially catastrophic onshore storm surges of 10’ to 15’ were predicted for the state’s southwest corner, from Cape Sable to Captiva Island, and 5’ to 8’ north at Tampa Bay.
The Coast Guard had closed the ports at Tampa, St. Petersburg and Manatee early Saturday, anticipating the storm’s advance up the Gulf coast. On the Atlantic side, the Port of Jacksonville closed at 8 p.m. Saturday, as storm conditions were raised for Savannah and Brunswick in Georgia, Charleston, S.C., and as far north as Wilmington, N.C.
The second Florida landfall around 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Marco Island, with winds gusting to 131 mph, marked the start of a decline to category 2 strength. But fears of the tremendous surge potential continued. The storm’s power was such that water levels were driven out of Tampa Bay and other estuaries, exposing the flats for hundreds of yards from shore — a phenomenon rarely seen in other historic storms, like the 1938 New England hurricane as it passed mid-Atlantic beaches.
But a huge pulse of returning that had been feared did not materialize. A slight jog in the storm center’s northern path lessened the storm surge.
“We have dodged a bullet with the storm going a little bit to the east,” said Dan Summers, director of emergency services for Collier County on Florida’s far southwest coast, said at a 9 p.m. news briefing.
Well before the Coast Guard planners laid out an electronic Aids to Navigation scheme to fill in for buoys and other physical markers subject to hurricane damage. Those 300-plus eATON extend from Tampa down through the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic coast to Charleston, officials said Monday.
The eATON are broadcast over the Coast Guard National Automatic Identification System, and can be accessed by any mariner using an AIS-equipped radar or electronic chart system. There is also a portable AIS system on standby in the Florida region. The virtual aids will serve as backup while buoy tenders and aids to navigation teams reconstitute fixed aids in those waters.
One missing vessel turned up safe on Friday. The 157’x34’ Princess Samiah, a Panamanian-flagged landing craft in the island freight trade, had been reported missing after it departed Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and failed to arrive as expected Thursday at Grenada.
Coast Guard watchstanders at San Juan, P.R., were initially contacted Thursday by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Fort de France and made aware of the missing vessel. A coordinated effort began between Coast Guard Sector San Juan, the MRCC Fort de France and Rescue Coordination Center Curacao to search and locate the overdue freighter.
Coast Guard watchstanders successfully made contact with the vessel owner Friday, who confirmed that the freighter was safely anchored off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. All three crewmembers were reported to be safe with no injuries.