We got knocked offline, literally, for 48 hours, beginning with the arrival of the first tropical storm gusts of Hurricane Wilma, about 2:30 a.m., October 24. I'm watching satellite images of the storm approaching the Gulf coast and then zap--we're blinked back to the pre-electrical age, to conjure images of candle making and whale slaughter. But what was the nature of the hurricane that brought more devastation to Miami-Dade County than anything since Andrew blasted ashore in '92--and Andrew was a tightly wound category 5--the highest--monster? The early analyses and reassessments underscore the difficulty we have measuring, much less reconstructing events, even, or maybe especially, those we have lived through.
Initial reports were of a hurricane that contrary to expectations--meaning to notoriously unreliable models--ramped up to Category 3 status before landfall near Naples, Florida, and lost little power on its rapid crossing of the peninsula, blasting the Southeast coast with winds of 120 to 125 mph. The University of Wisconsin's Tropical Cyclone site, in the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), reflects that assessment in its excellent storm track map.
But several days later, University of Miami researcher, Sharanya Majundar, concluded that Wilma was primarily a Category 1 storm that crossed Florida with 85 mph winds, about what Katrina carried on its run in the opposite direction a month earlier. The October 29 Miami Herald (registration required) carried a good story on the issue, proposing that microbursts could have abounded or that coming in across the Everglades, the storm picked up debris with which to batter buildings and vegetation. For now, there is debate without resolution.
Although officialdom seems to have embraced the lower classification, no one who experienced the storm--at least among the people I've talked to--believes that Wilma was Category 1, the same as Katrina when it crossed Florida. Wilma wind gusts in the range 0f 120 to 125 mph were recorded in Broward County and on Miami Beach. That's Category 3. But those were gusts, and, indeed, from my unscientific perspective the pulsating quality of these winds was what was remarkable, especially after the elongatedd eye passed far enough to the west of Miami Beach that we had no calm.
Instead, the wind shifted in the blink of an eye from the southeast to southwest and turned explosively concussive, percussive. Blowing at its sustained rate of 85 mph--or whatever--enough to bend the palms double, their fronds whiplashing air and ground and any object within reach--the wind would seem to pause, take a breath as it were, then boom. A wall of wind would burst forth, driving the frenzied palms supine, snaping tree limbs, uprooting banyans that had escaped Katrina. The house would vibrate and emit a deep, rolling rumble, like far distant thunder. After five minutes or so, that onslaught would pause, meaning the wind speed would collapse back to its base of 85 mph for a momentary inhalation before exploding again. I don't have official records, but by my calculation, that pattern repeated itself continuously for an hour to an hour and a half, and it was brutal--to plants, buildings, people and critters, physically and psychologically--after especially after the prolonged onslaught, the softening up, as it were, from the southeast.
The westerlies might have benefitted imperial Spain by blowing the treasure fleets from the New World to the Old, but from my experience the west wind is an ill wind for the Southeast coast of Florida, bringing hot, humid weather, if not storms.
Perhaps, Wilma seems all the more intense because it passed by day--Katrina passed through at night, as did Andrew (largely). We watched and, like people through time, we might have overestimated the power of what we observed, but I have to use the qualifier because, as I said, all the people I talked to after the storm--those who were here--said, yes, this Wilma was powerful, worse than they expected, considerably worse than Katrina, just look at the destruction. Yet, they always added, Andrew was much worse. I add that by way of illustrating that people are quite capable of judging relative strength, even if they lack precise data.
By any measure Wilma was a brutal storm, especially those winds that hit us on Miami Beach from the southwest. That said, except for considerable damage to our vegetation--three trees gone and two more in need of righting, if we can stand them back up, along with some loosened roof tiles, we were lucky. Our 1925 house stood up to another hurricane--the 1926 storm that flooded Miami Beach and Andrew, and now Wilma, the most destructive among them.
I'd rather it didn't have to do so. After two hurricanes and two near misses that produced prolonged tropical storm force winds this year, most people I know are hurricane weary, and there is still a month to go in the season. That's right, a month was added to the traditional season because global warming keeps the tropics hot.