Hurricane Irma is a monster. After the storm reached Category 5 intensity Tuesday morning, the National Hurricane Center says it became the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic outside of the warm waters of the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico. And even as the Gulf region of the United States deals with the ongoing devastation of Hurricane Harvey and its week of flooding, coastal areas of the country are again bracing for the worst with Irma.
Much of the national focus has been on Miami, Florida, which sits within Irma’s cone of probability, and is perhaps one of the most susceptible cities in the country to hurricane damage, despite managing to avoid direct hits for decades. But the portents are perhaps even more dire in the U.S. territories in the Caribbean, which along with several island and archipelago nations in that sea will face a direct hit from Irma at its strongest.
Irma is expected to bring “life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall,” to the Leeward Islands, the National Hurricane Center said Tuesday. The hurricane may produce storm surges between seven feet and 11 feet in parts of the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and between two feet and four feet on the northern coast of Puerto Rico.
For comparison, perhaps the most deadly and costly storm in recent history for both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm that hit the region in September 1989 and caused billions of dollars of damage. That storm all but destroyed St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, damaging 90 percent of all buildings, making over 20,000 people homeless, and sparking allegations of racism after over 1,000 U.S. troops were sent to restore order in the mostly-black island in the storm’s wake. Hugo was weaker than Irma will be when it’s expected to hit the region: Hugo featured 130 mile-per-hour maximum winds versus Irma’s 180 maximum, and featured a storm surge of 3 feet versus Irma’s expected 7-10 feet.