Its force, unimaginable. Its impact, catastrophic. But Hurricane Irma – the most powerful storm of its kind in the Atlantic Ocean in recorded history with winds at 185 mph and gusts well over 200 mph – is a sign of more to come if we fail to address climate change. We must be prepared.
Such is the strength of a category 5 hurricane that even the most well-engineered building is no match for its winds. Anything over 155 miles per hour will have a direct impact on structures. Government buildings on the island of Saint Martin - the sturdiest built there - were yesterday reported to have been destroyed.
The magnitude of the effects of Irma is such that we must now question the very system used to classify hurricanes.
Under the Saffir–Simpson scale, a category 4 hurricane is one between 130 miles per hour and 156 miles per hour. Category 5 is anything over 157 miles per hour. Irma reached 185 miles per hour, and gusts were said to reach 200 miles per hour. Some say the time has come for the designation of “Category 6”.
But not only does Irma go down in the history books as the most monstrous hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean, it will also be known as one of the most powerful storms of all time. It only trails Hurricane Allen in 1980, which had winds of 190 mph and is tied for second most intense with Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane.
Hurricanes do not normally pose a threat to North America. The U.S. has only been hit by more than one Category 4 hurricane in a season one time: 1915. Two Category 4 hurricanes hit in Texas and Louisiana six weeks apart that year. With Harvey and Irma, the status quo is changing.
Luckily, some islands yesterday were counting their lucky stars, such as Antigua - its dependency, Barbuda, not so lucky though, suffering widespread destruction of houses and other buildings and one related death - which fell under the eye of the storm. Other northern Leewards including the French Overseas Territories where two people were reportedly killed, also recorded damage: loss of communications; damage to police infrastructure; blocked roads; and a fire.
But more is to come. The trailing Tropical Storm Jose was due to become a hurricane last night. By noon yesterday another Tropical Storm, Katia, had formed in the Gulf of Mexico. All mere days after Hurricane Harvey killed some 70 people. No rest for nature.
The big issue now is whether we are prepared for any of this.
At times, it seems as though we are not prepared for normal rainfall, far less seriously dangerous storm systems. Localised freak storms regularly cause significant damage here.
We are grateful Caricom has taken a lead role in the regional response to hurricanes. It will fall to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Authority to coordinate relief efforts as needed in the days ahead.
Not everybody has a hurricane-proof wine cellar like Sir Richard Branson, so the availability of advanced information and the widespread diffusion of warnings is crucial to allow adequate evacuation. But this is just part of the overall system of preparedness.
We must do everything to keep abreast of technology and put systems in place to predict storms and to also bolster infrastructure as much as possible. There must also be a storm-preparedness culture in households. We cannot be complacent on any level.
And that is mainly because the unusual weather trends which the world has been experiencing are posing a severe hazard to our quality of life.
It could be said that storms like Irma are the end results of processes put in train a long time ago by large, wealthy, industrialised nations. They must be lobbied to take note and effect change. Or else we will continue to learn a terrible lesson: who don’t hear will feel.