We sawed through plywood and boarded up windows, hoarded water and bought stores out of batteries. We took down flags and porch swings and filled up with gas, hit the road or hunkered down.
In short, we all made plans.
But the impossibly large Irma, like every hurricane before and all that will come after, did not care about how well-prepared we were. The storm left us powerless before moving on to devastate areas outside its path, that didn’t see what was coming.
It first found the Caribbean islands, some losing 90 percent of their buildings, the wind ripping a 2-year-old child from a relative’s arms. He was found dead the next morning. In Jacksonville, the river rushed over the sea wall, the flooding so bad, a cafe owner said, that it looked like the beach had been dumped on the floor. Streets in Charleston, S.C., were underwater, fire hydrants drowned, dumpsters drifting in waves.
Technology tells us a hurricane is on its way. But no matter how many times we check the track on our screens, anything can happen. Here’s what did.
As the storm swirled over the Atlantic, hundreds of miles away, a 16-year-old surfer tried to ride the large swells off the island’s east coast. He drowned. Irma claimed its first life without ever setting foot on land.
The island is 62 square miles. Irma was 378 miles wide when it made landfall. This is where a toddler blew out of a woman’s arms, the hurricane plucking the roof from their home. Churches and schools collapsed. Stray dogs sniffed the colorful wreckage.
The looters came in Irma’s wake, men in ski masks with shotguns. Doctors ran out of medicine, and everyone ran out of water. A 63-year-old woman waited two hours before giving up on food trucks that never came. The estimate of the dead climbed from four to eight to 11, and Irma kept moving.
Buildings were shattered, people left homeless in the heat. It looked, one survivor said, as though a nuclear bomb had gone off.
They took shelter in hotels, using mattresses and chairs to barricade the glass doors. They came home to houses that had disappeared into the ocean. People flashed guns as they cut lines for gasoline. A soldier called it a war zone, eight dead, crews looking for more bodies, hands picking through the wreckage of their lives.
Trees danced with power lines, but Irma sailed north.
It came here overnight, eyeing the most populated island, Providenciales. Then Irma erased an entire community. People could feel the drop in pressure in their chests. Survivors waded through waist-high water. Grand Turk was powerless and pitch-black.
The hurricane made landfall as a Category 5, refueled from warm water. Winds in excess of 125 mph ripped off roofs and walls, leaving living rooms exposed as if they were television sets. Everything was dirty. And wet. An 89-year-old woman was found floating outside her front door. Another died when a balcony fell on a bus. Ten people lost their lives, seven in Havana. Businessmen pleaded with canceling tourists, saying they were just starting to re-enter the world.
Homeowners put couches on countertops before they locked the doors and left. Days later, the eye crossed over. Irma whisked together fishing boats, jacuzzis and washer-dryers, exposing the guts of everyday life in undiscerning piles. A naked man lay dead in the road until a returning Marathon man covered his body with a plastic sail cover. A shredded billboard read, “Come as you are.”
This wealthy little city was silent before the storm, except for the wind smacking palm trees and the police SUVs urging: EVACUATE. Irma arrived as a Category 3, weaker than the worst of the predictions. Men in their early 20s rode it out to see something cool. Their ears popped. A bald eagle’s nest survived.
Several days after Irma tore through here, an enclave up the road from marquee neighbor Naples, people turned to canoes and kayaks to reach their houses. Dogs paddled through polluted water while 13 children breathed in carbon-monoxide from a misused generator. The mayor said the flooding would keep coming. Some neighborhoods might never be rebuilt.
Irma drowned America’s tomato capital.
The hurricane was supposed to hug the west coast — it was coming for us, right? — but it took its deteriorating eye wall and 100 mph winds, and cut inland. At a grove south of Lake Wales, most of the citrus crop was yanked to the ground. A tree smashed into a bedroom in Bartow. Dawn saw magnolias — roots-up — in the road. Disaster crews kept a Waffle House open.
Irma kept spinning up the state, tropical force winds downing trees and stealing power. Good-looking police officers caused a stir on Facebook. The Santa Fe River spilled onto the road, except this road was I-75, the state’s major artery.
The St. John’s River rushed over sea walls and sandbags alike, pushing water into places that had not felt its cold touch since 1846, one year after Florida became a state. Emergency crews rescued 356 people. A manager at a car dealership hooked a 3-pound bass, sitting at a gazebo 30 yards from where the water usually ended. He released it in what used to be a park, where children played.
They call it a “king tide,” when a high tide falls on a full moon. Irma came then. A man’s muscles ached from stuffing sandbags, but it wasn’t enough. Water flowed through his house. He sat in his truck with his dogs at the top of his street, unable to get to the bottom. The island was cut off from mainland Savannah.
It washed ashore in 1989 during Hurricane Hugo, an unclaimed sea vessel. For 28 years, the Folly Boat was beached by a state highway, the locals painting it with marriage proposals, graduation announcements, athletic allegiances. And over the weekend, someone painted, “Godspeed Florida,” and “This too shall pass.”
On a Monday afternoon, Irma floated it back to sea.
This report used information from The Washington Post, Associated Press, USA Today, CNN, Wall Street Journal, NPR, BBC, New York Times, Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times, Lakeland Ledger and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.