Hurricane Irma made landfall as a Category 5 storm in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) on September 6, 2017, and then as a Category 4 storm in the Florida Keys on September 10. It moved across the Keys and then up the state’s west coast through the panhandle. The communities hit by the massive storm will be rebuilding and recovering for years to come. In Fiscal Year 2017, staff from across the National Ocean Service supported the impacted communities by delivering coastal science, management, and operational expertise. Following is a summary of some of those activities.
The Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) issued Storm QuickLook postings every six hours throughout the storm. The product provides a synopsis of near real-time oceanographic and meteorological observations at locations affected by a storm. CO-OPS issued 29 QuickLooks for Irma, matching the number issued for Hurricane Harvey. The highest water level recorded was at the I-295 Bridge, St. Johns River, Florida, at 5.26 feet above Mean Higher High Water (MHHW). Inundation is most likely to occur when water levels rise above MHHW. Peak observed water levels for Irma can be viewed online. In Virginia Key, Florida, water levels reached 3.66 feet above MHHW. This eclipses the previous maximum of 2.58 feet from Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Through its Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise Program, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science is funding research to develop a modeling tool that will predict how barrier islands and sand dunes function and recover following storms. The goal is to enable coastal managers to better evaluate how these natural and managed islands recover from storms and change through time under various sea level rise and management scenarios. By comparing changes between managed and natural barrier islands, researchers hope to better inform coastal communities on how to maximize the ecological and societal benefits of these habitats.
The National Geodetic Survey (NGS) The National Geodetic Survey (NGS) collected more than 18,000 aerial oblique images, covering more than 4,500 square kilometers along the coast. Using NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations Beechcraft King Air 350 CER aircraft, NGS covered areas from Savannah to Brunswick, GA; Jacksonville to Daytona, Punta Gorda to Naples, the Everglades to Fort Myers, and Key West to Key Largo, FL; and St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix, USVI. Images were processed and posted online within hours. The imagery is used for a variety of purposes, including recovery strategies, search-and- rescue efforts, hazard identification, vessel locations, and damage assessment. NGS conducts surveys as requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or a state, territory, or tribe in coordination with FEMA.
The Office of Coast Survey (OCS) navigation managers were pre-deployed in Norfolk, VA, and in Miami and Tampa, FL, to coordinate efforts with U.S. Coast Guard District 7 and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District. OCS’s Mobile Integrated Survey Team (MIST) traveled from the NOAA Disaster Response Center in Mobile, AL, to Miami on the first available flight after the storm. The team surveyed the Port of Miami aboard a vessel of opportunity provided by the Miami-Dade Police Department. Navigation Response Team 5 traveled from New London, CT, to conduct surveys in Tampa Bay. NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson transited from Norfolk, VA, to survey near Savannah, GA.
The Office for Coastal Management (OCM) coordinated with state and territorial Coastal Zone Management, National Estuarine Research Reserve, coral programs, and Sea Grant partners throughout the Southeast, Caribbean, and Gulf regions to identify facility, equipment, and other damages and operational needs, and make them aware of NOAA resources for assistance. Staff in the U.S. Virgin Islands helped move hospital patients from St. Thomas to St. Croix, then on to Puerto Rico, and a staff member was deployed to the FEMA Joint Field Office in Austin, TX, to help implement recovery actions under the National Disaster Recovery Framework. The online Digital Coast platform provided coastal communities with information and resources including LIDAR, elevation, and land cover data; risk and vulnerability assessment methods; and sea level rise maps, all of which are used in recovery planning efforts. OCM worked with state and territorial partners to explore how streamlining programmatic and environmental permitting could hasten both short- and long-term recovery. Additionally, scientists with OCM/Coral Reef Conservation Program and other NOAA offices joined partners in Florida to assess damage to coral reef areas, including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, following the hurricane.
The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries worked with the U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to assess and expedite the response to more than 1,700 displaced, damaged, and sunken vessels that posed potential hazards to navigation and the environment. The sanctuary also coordinated with local and state governments, NGOs, and academic research and monitoring partners to conduct a rapid assessment of natural resources to develop short- and long-term management actions. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary offices in Key West reopened following a nearly 3-week closure due to the storm. Facilities and equipment there sustained moderate to severe r damage. Key Largo facilities suffered water damage but the structure remained intact. The sanctuary mooring buoy network experienced serious impacts and damage assessment is ongoing. The sanctuary’s small boats in the Upper Keys survived the storm with minimal damage. Boats in the Lower Keys suffered moderate damage, and two remained out of service as of November 2017. The Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary campus near Savannah, GA, reopened within a week.
The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provided both remote and on-scene support in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, in cooperation with partners including the U.S Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal and state agencies. Focus areas were Florida and the USVI. Information was collected on marine debris, including that of grounded vessels. NGS aerial imagery of damage from Irma was added to ORR’s web-based GIS tools, ERMA® Gulf of Mexico and ERMA® Caribbean.
The U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®) worked closely with three of its regional associations—the Caribbean Regional Association for Coastal Ocean Observing (CARICOOS), the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS), and the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA)—to monitor and assist in the response to Irma. In-situ observing equipment included high-frequency radars and gliders, which functioned as expected throughout the storm. Two radars near Venice, FL, operated continuously, while others, in Puerto Rico and South Florida, experienced degrees of downtime. The equipment was assessed and repaired as access became possible. Storm data and information are available online via the GCOOS hurricane resources page and SECOORA hurricane resources page.