Hurricane Irma was up to category 4 Monday evening, with maximum sustained winds of 140 miles per hour and some additional strengthening forecast. That’s frighteningly similar to Luis exactly 22 years ago today, which devastated the island.
Although winds of hurricane force with this considerably smaller system extend outward only 40 miles and of storm force 140 miles from the centre, that won’t matter a whole lot if it passes very close to or directly over the local area. The Met Office expects Irma to move near St. Maarten tonight into early Wednesday.
However, there are more differences compared to September 5, 1995. For one thing much of the electricity grid is now underground, greatly reducing the risk of power outages or short circuits to due to blown-over utility poles or overhead cables being broken by falling trees, branches and other debris.
The former issue with seaweed clogging the Cay Bay energy plant’s intake has also been at least partly resolved, so hopefully that won’t be a problem either. The Pointe Blanche auxiliary water plant was shut down due to rough marine conditions as a precaution, but storage tanks are still being filled and there is enough in reserve for several days
And it’s not only from Luis that valuable lessons were learned. After Hurricane Lenny flooded a large part of Philipsburg in November 1999 new floodgates were installed between Fresh and Great Salt Ponds, while the pumping capacity of the latter was increased. VROMI crews and contractors have also been clearing drains and trenches to prevent blockage.
Perhaps most important, the many structures damaged or destroyed two decades ago were as a rule rebuilt stronger than before. That is also the main reason some pretty intense fairly recent hurricane-hits like that of Gonzalo did not have a hugely destructive effect on most proper buildings.
So, one could say the island and its people are on the whole better able to withstand these tropical systems than ever before. However, this is certainly no reason to underestimate the impact of a major hurricane like Irma which could even reach catastrophic category 5 proportions before all is said and done.