Hurricane Irene, the ninth storm of the 2011 Atlantic Hurricane Season, was actually the first hurricane of the season. The storm took a path through the Bahamas as a Category Three storm and then went up the Eastern Seaboard giving a glancing blow to the Outer Banks of North Carolina before making landfall in New Jersey and heading into the Northeast.
The 2011 Atlantic Hurricane Season was quite a busy one. When it was all said and done, there were 20 depressions, 19 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 4 major hurricanes. Irene was actually the first hurricane of 2011 in the Atlantic. Prior to her arrival, there had been 8 named storms, and none of them were able to reach hurricane threshold.
Irene was a storm that had its origins off the West Coast of Africa as a tropical wave, but didn't really get its act together until it approached the Lesser Antilles on August 21st. The storm had plenty of convection and winds between 45 and 50 miles per hour, but struggled to attain a closed circulation until the early evening of August 20th. Irene then moved over St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and Eastern Puerto Rico.
On August 22nd, Irene became a hurricane as it moved over Puerto Rico, and could have intensified further had it not been for the interaction of its circulation with the rugged terrain of the island of Hispaniola on August 23rd, which is home to the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A day later, the storm began to blossom as it moved away from Hispaniola and towards the Bahamas archipelago.
Irene intensified to a Category Three Hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour and a minimum central pressure of 957 millibars, or approximately 28.26 inches of Hg (Mercury). The eye of the storm at this point was about 18 miles in diameter as it pounded Cat Island, Crooked, Acklins, and Long Island in the Bahamas with its full fury.
After Irene moved away from the Bahamas, there was a burst of intensification that ramped the storm up to its peak intensity of 125 miles per hour, but then the storm began to encounter dry air, which eventually ravaged the storm. As the storm progressed up the east coast, it began to look like a runner running out of gas as it approached the finish line.
Irene would make a couple more landfalls in North Carolina and in New Jersey before winding down to a tropical storm, but its large circulation and its slow motion would produce heavy rainfall to the Northeast, which resulted in devastating floods in New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts. The storm left 49 people dead, and caused some $15.8 billion dollars in damage.
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The peak of Irene was when it was moving through the Bahamas. Although none of the 49 people killed by the storm were from the Bahamas, the island chain suffered the brunt of the storm's fury. Irene was a full fledged hurricane of Category Three intensity with winds up to 120 miles per hour when it came through the Bahamas.
According to a report on the storm from the National Hurricane Center, there were wind gusts reported to be as high as 115 miles per hour in Moss Town on Exuma Island and Arthur's Town on Cat Island. In Eleuthera island, the minimum central pressure dropped to 952 millibars, or approximately 28.11 inches of Hg (Mercury). Over in Marsh Island on Abacos Island, the pressure dropped to 950 millibars, or 28.05 inches of Hg (Mercury).
The Nassau Guardian reported that some 1,000 people went into shelters as the storm approached. Several of the Family Islands were without electricity including Cat Island, which lost some of its telecommunication services. The Orange Creek section of Cat Island had 20 percent of its buildings left uninhabitable in the wake of the powerful hurricane. Prime Minister, Hubert Ingraham, indicated at the time that there were various levels of damage depending upon where you were located.
Roofs from homes and business were damaged in the islands of Mayaguana, Rum Cay, San Salvador, Long Island, Eleuthera, Spanish Wells, Harbor Island, Exuma, Abaco, Grand Bahama, and New Providence. Government offices as well as schools, police stations, and other infrastructure sustained significant damage as well. Water supplies in several of the islands were also affected. In total, Hurricane Irene cost some $37 million dollars to the Bahamas, which were still struggling with recovery as the year 2012 began.
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After Hurricane Irene departed the Bahamas, it was slightly weakened, but with warm water still ahead of it, and no inhibiting factors such as land or wind shear to hinder it, the storm appeared poised to ramp up again and be a more menacing threat to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Thankfully, it didn't turn out that way, and that was in large part due to the dry air that got entrained in it.
The dry air continued to get more and more entrenched in Irene's circulation, and that ultimately diminished Irene's power. Even though other environmental factors such as sea surface temperatures and wind shear were conducive to development, the storm wasn't able to regenerate to the peak intensity that it had after it had just left the Bahamas, and perhaps become even stronger.
Instead, Hurricane Irene gradually wound down. It was almost like watching a runner running out of gas as he or she approached the finish line at the end of a long race. Irene had lost its stamina. The structure of the storm on satellite looked more like Swiss cheese with the cloud canopy around the eye full of holes from the dry air sucking out the moisture in the system.
Despite losing its strength and power, Irene limped on up the East Coast of the United States. First, the storm impacted the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where it made landfall near Cape Lookout, North Carolina with winds of a little more than minimal hurricane strength at 85 miles per hour. Irene stayed parallel to the coastline of the Virginia and the Delmarva Peninsula before coming ashore again in New Jersey at Brigantine Island outside of Atlantic City with 70 mph winds.
Prior to making landfall in Brigantine, New Jersey, the storm was already producing drenching rains across the Garden State. Irene spawned a tornado in Lewes, Delaware across Delaware Bay from Cape May. Water levels along the coast were on the rise, especially in Raritan Bay at South Amboy's Waterfront Park. Before Irene's arrival, Greg's Weather Center in South Plainfield, NJ, had received 10 inches of rain during the month of August 2011. Other areas around New Jersey had received more. Some places had upwards of 15 to 20 inches. Irene easily added another five inches to that total with isolated areas receiving much more.
The result was significant flooding. Portions of downtown South Plainfield were underwater. The Oakmoor Avenue neighborhood in South Plainfield saw its worst flooding in 45 years. Although water levels would go down quickly, there were power lines and gas lines shut off, and they wouldn't be restored for several days. The final rainfall total at GWC was 5.34 inches while the barometer bottomed out at 28.64 inches as Irene passed close by on its way to New York City. Howell, in Southern Monmouth County received 10 inches of rain.
Rockaway Borough, in Morris County, had flooding on Morris Avenue near Interstate 80 that made it impassable. Flooding and downed trees blocked off sections of the New Jersey Turnpike, Interstate 295, and the Garden State Parkway. Wind gusts peaked at 63 miles per hour at Sandy Hook while they reached 52 miles per hour in Belmar. The boardwalk in Spring Lake suffered significant damage from the storm. Approximately 121,000 people were without power according to NJ.com.
In addition to the tornado in Lewes, Delaware, there were also tornadoes in North Carolina, Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania. The strongest was an EF2 twister in Columbia, North Carolina. Storm surge affected a number of locations including North Carolina (3 to 7 feet), New Jersey (3 to 5 feet) and New York and Long Island (3 to 6 feet). The main impact though from Irene as it got further north was the heavy rain, which resulted in catastrophic flooding in New York and New England, particularly Vermont.
With rainfall amounts of 4 to 7 inches covering a very large swath of real estate in Southern and Central Vermont, there were devastating flash floods that left some 2400 roads, 800 homes and businesses, 300 bridges, and six railroad tracks damaged or destroyed. The flooding from Irene ranks second to the flood of November 1927 in terms of damage in Southern Vermont. One of the more iconic footage from Irene's impact on the Northeast was video of a covered bridge in Northern Vermont that was built in 1870 being washed away by flood waters.
On a personal note, Hurricane Irene was the first storm to impact my home in South Plainfield, New Jersey since Hurricane Floyd. Floyd produced much more rain at my house with a total of 11.67 inches by the time it was through, but not as much rain had fallen prior to its arrival in September 1999. The situation with Irene was much different. New Jersey was waterlogged by record rainfall in the month of August 2011 so it didn't take much to trigger the flood damage in the Garden State.
Irene's damage hit closer to home for me. The basement in my house was flooded and several appliances were damaged and had to be replaced. Not sure on how high or far the flood waters would get, my family decided to evacuate to a hotel for a few days. Our cat, who was suffering from a growth or tumor in his chest that made it difficult for him to breathe passed away several days after the storm due to the stress and trauma he suffered during the event.
My home has had some sort of experience with hurricanes in 1976 (Belle), 1979 (David), 1985 (Gloria), 1999 (Floyd), and 2011 (Irene), and I would say that this was the worst due to the flooding. Sandy (2012) would come along a year later, and caused a good deal of wind damage, but our home survived that storm relatively well.
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