Hurricane Irma: Think you survived a Cat 4…not even close

Business owners in Palm Beach County had a message for Hurricane Irma. (Greg Lovett/Palm Beach Post)

People bristle in disbelief, even anger, when hurricane center specialist John Cangialosi tells them the truth about Hurricane Irma’s wind speeds.

Many believe they survived much worse during the September tempest, and aren’t keen to hear otherwise.

But only those within about 15 miles of Irma’s fierce eye that made landfall near Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10, 2017 experienced the sting of a Cat 4 hurricane. As the wind field spread and slowed, people at either end of the island chain — Key Largo and Key West — likely felt no more than sustained Category 1 winds.

Hurricane Irma crossing the Florida Keys on Sept. 10, 2017.

In Palm Beach County, where trees toppled and electricity faltered, no sustained hurricane-force winds were measured during Irma, although a 91-mph gust is on record at Palm Beach International Airport. Broward County had one sustained measurement of 76 in Hollywood, just over the Cat 1 threshold.

“Most people get really defensive when you tell them they saw a Cat 1 Irma, not a Cat 4,” said Cangialosi, who was lead author of the National Hurricane Center’s post-mortem on Irma. “I try to say that I know it was bad and I don’t dismiss what they experienced, but they see it as a put down. It’s a very common thing.”

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In summers past, when Florida basked in a more than decade-long hurricane drought, the worry at the start of storm season was that “hurricane amnesia” had settled over an unconcerned and ill-prepared Sunshine State.

It’s different this June 1.

Few have forgotten the September assault by Hurricane Irma — the first major hurricane of Cat 3 or higher to hit Florida since Wilma in 2005.

But are the recollections of Irma’s muscle accurate?

RELATED: What’s an invest and why do they keep saying tropical cyclone?

Instead of hurricane amnesia, some emergency managers fear people may be overestimating Irma’s wind speeds, attributing the destruction around them to a power greater than what was felt, and then using that as a base on how to react to future storms that will pack greater fury.

“There are a lot of people in the Keys who think they survived a Cat 4 with Irma, but what we know is that for where they were, it was a Cat 1,” said Monroe County Emergency Manager Martin Senterfitt during the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in May. “They will tell you it was bad, it was scary, it was horrible. Yes, and ….

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