By Breanna Beers
Mere days after Hurricane Harvey tore its path through Texas, the United States and surrounding areas faced another impending natural disaster: Hurricane Irma.
Over 7 million people in the United States alone were told to evacuate their homes in anticipation of the coming storm. The long days of waiting before the hurricane struck were especially difficult for Cedarville students separated from their families. To them, the catastrophe felt intensely close, even from hundreds of miles away.
“When it’s your own home, it’s so much more personal,” said Sara Mitchell, a freshman from Jacksonville, Florida. “You know where that street is, you know who went to that church, and you know that your friends and family have to work so hard to recover from something like this.”
Junior Abigail Nilius described the difficulty of being separated from her family as the hurricane passed over her hometown of Lakeland, Florida. Originally, Lakeland was not within the projected track of Hurricane Irma, but as the hurricane curved slightly west, Nilius’ hometown came into the path of the eye. Lakeland residents had only a day’s notice to prepare, with no chance to evacuate.
“It was really hard…knowing that there was nothing I could do about it but still wondering all night what was going on with [my family],” said Nilius. “It was really scary seeing pictures from the Bahamas and Key West, flattening communities completely, knowing it did this much damage to these places and it was going to hit my house.”
The Category 5 hurricane first touched down on the island of Barbuda on September 6, 2017. It blazed its path through the Virgin and Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, then struck the coasts of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba before heading northward to Florida. As it curved into the southeastern United States, Irma fractured into a tropical storm and eventually dissipated, leaving in its wake demolished records, desolated property, and devastated lives.
“When they first went out after the storm had passed, it looked like a war zone,” said Nilius. “They couldn’t even see down our street because of the trees almost every ten feet…. It was very eerie, because it had been so loud all night with the wind and the trees falling, then the silence.”
Irma’s strength and size made it uniquely destructive. Its 185-mph winds were the strongest ever recorded in the open Atlantic, matched only by the Gulf of Mexico’s Hurricane Allen in 1980. Irma, however, sustained those winds for over 37 hours, 15 hours longer than any other storm in recorded history. In total, the storm claimed 61 lives — 38 in the Caribbean and 23 in the United States, including a two-year-old in Barbuda who was swept to his death and eight Florida nursing home residents who suffered from heat-related fatalities after the facility lost air conditioning.
Irma’s impact was heightened in areas that were struck by Hurricane Matthew last September. In many coastal areas, Hurricane Matthew wore down the sand dunes that serve as a natural barrier between the sea and the shore, making flooding from Irma far worse than it otherwise would have been. Damage was also caused by the ferocious wind blowing in windows, tearing up power lines, ripping off shingles, and knocking down trees.
“A lot of the damage is massive trees falling on houses because in Florida, the roots of the trees don’t go downwards, since we’re at water level,” explained Nilius. “All their roots go sideways, so there’s not a ton of support….There’s also wind damage to all the power lines and roofs lose shingles.”
Many homes, businesses, and, in some areas, whole communities have been destroyed. Millions of homes remain without power or air conditioning, lines for gas can take up to two hours and highways are congested from the millions of people trying to return to their homes.
“Even if your house wasn’t directly affected, your community was affected,” said Mitchell.
As the wind begins to settle and the waters to recede, communities are uniting in new ways to rebuild their homes together. The process of recovery is sure to be a long one, and for those who have lost loved ones, life will never be the same.
“It’ll take weeks and months to get everything back, and for some, years,” said Nilius. Yet she also expressed faith that God would use this disaster for His glory: “It is such a huge opportunity to see the whole community come together and to be able to minister to the people and say, ‘Here’s the hope in the middle of such destruction. Yes, we have a hope.’”
(The Associated Press contributed information to this story.)
Breanna Beers is a freshman Molecular Biology and Journalism double major and a staff writer for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting The Princess Bride whether it’s relevant or not.