The air of doomsday hangs heavy today above Florida.
As of 2pm EDT, Hurricane Irma is 225 miles off the Florida coast, heading north through the Bahamas after mowing over the Caribbean island chain and wreaking havoc on some of the world’s most prized paddling locales. The infrastructures of whole cities have been leveled. Entire islands are devastated. And Florida is now bracing for unprecedented impact from one of the greatest Atlantic storms of the century.
Current weather models predict Irma will make landfall in Florida this evening with the majority of storm trackers finally aligning to indicate a direct hit on southern Florida—a region home to more than 7 million people—Sunday. The storm’s projected path from there spans the entirety of the state as it climbs north into the eastern US, though the course could change at any point given the the dubious nature of hurricanes.
“I can guarantee you that I don't know anybody in Florida who's ever experienced what's about to hit South Florida," said Brock Long, administrator for FEMA.
Preparation in Florida has been underway for the past week as the storm’s potential impact has been well forecasted by devastation already wrought in communities from the British Virgin Islands to The Bahamas.
90 percent of Barbuda’s infrastructure is considerably damaged, prompting the country’s prime minister to deem the island “practically uninhabitable.”
Irma, which took form off the northwestern coast of Africa and grew into a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds up to 185 miles per hour as it stretched west across the Atlantic before first making landfall in the British Virgin Islands, ran a harrowing course through Caribbean islands. Communities in Barbuda, St. Martin, Anguilla, northern Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos and more report myriad horrific figures—90 percent of Barbuda’s infrastructure is considerably damaged, prompting the country’s prime minister to deem the island “practically uninhabitable”; hospitals and airports in Anguilla have been reduced to rubble; eight deaths have been tallied so far in St. Martin with a local councilman reporting that 95 percent of the island is now destroyed. Heading northwest yesterday Irma grazed the Atlantic coast of Puerto Rico, where despite missing the brunt of the storm, 70 percent of the nation lost electricity.
The trail of obliteration bodes ominously for Floridians, and a state of emergency complete with mandatory evacuations of low-lying communities translates to utter chaos for the Sunshine State.
“There's a million scenarios that could happen, but everyone’s in full panic mode,” said Greg Panas, SUP staff photographer and lifelong resident of Jupiter, Florida, 75 miles north of Miami on the Atlantic.
“It’s been an absolute nightmare.”
The panicked preparation of Florida’s 20-some million residents began early this week and has been plagued by the unpredictability of the storm.
“All the weather models say different things,” Panas said Thursday morning. “(Irma) could move right up the middle of the state or it could head east and spare a lot of it. We just don’t know.”
South Florida stores have been sold out of bottled water for days, along with plywood (used to shudder windows), sandbags and other essentials. Gas is now near impossible to come by in most of the state. A rapidly increasing count of stations are shutting down and those that remain open are subject to unrealistic wait-lines as Floridians jam onto the peninsula’s highways to flee harms way.
Beyond depleted resources, the unpredictability of the storm has had an even more sinister result: many South Floridians are opting to stay and take their chances.
“Half the people I know are leaving; half of us are staying.” said Panas. “I thought about leaving, but my parents and grandparents are here and they’re going to need help. No one knows how bad it’s going to be, so no one really knows what the right call is.”
All paddlers are part of this. The areas impacted are among our most beloved communities in the world.
With the country still recoiling from Hurricane Harvey, which displaced more than 30,000 Texans just last week, and Irma marking the second in a string of four major hurricanes writhing across the Tropic of Cancer this month, the breadth of devastation inflicted by these super-storms calls for an immense scale of disaster relief. As of yesterday, 4,000 members of the US National Guard have been activated across the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the southeastern United States to assist. Virtually every disaster relief outfit in the US is now focused on mitigating the damage. And for the individuals watching safely from afar, opportunities to lend a lifeline can be found in a variety of forms.
All paddlers are part of this. The areas impacted are among our most beloved communities. Below is a list of organizations you can support by donating or volunteering:
Save The Children will provide relief efforts for families and children impacted by the storm.
The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster is registering volunteers to help in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other areas affected by Hurricane Irma.