Miami's coastal marinas brace for Hurricane Irma

Irma is the most powerful storm the Atlantic Ocean has ever produced. This week it devastated parts of the Caribbean, breaking records as it went. Now, its sights are set on densely populated Miami, where the city's many marinas present a particular challenge.
Mariners work together to secure each other's vessels at Harbor Square Marina in Meritt Island, Fla., as residents in the area prepare ahead of Hurricane Irma, on Sept. 7, 2017. (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

Hurricane Irma is looking to be the most powerful storm the Atlantic has ever seen.

As the storm sweeps across the Caribbean en route to the southern United States, Irma is already breaking records.

It's now been a Category 5 hurricane, with wind speeds of up to 298 kilometres per hour, for longer than any other hurricane in history. Its footprint is more than 1,200 kilometres wide — bigger than the state of Texas.

The hurricane is so strong, it's being detected on earthquake-measuring equipment.

After devastating Caribbean islands such as Barbuda, Antigua and St. Martin earlier this week, Irma is headed towards the Florida coast this weekend. 

In Florida, mandatory evacuations have been issued in several areas, including Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys.

"Regardless of which [Florida] coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday at a news conference, with forecasters warning the storm could reach South Florida by late Saturday.

A worker covers the windows of a restaurant with plywood in Miami Beach, Florida, in preparation for Hurricane Irma, on Sept. 7, 2017. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

Officials worry that should Irma hit hard, Florida could expect catastrophic damage. Power outages could last for weeks. People could be out of their homes for months.

People across the state are preparing for the worst — but hoping for the best.

The Florida Baptist Convention is among several groups stepping up to offer assistance.

"We are prepared with 20 mobile kitchens, and we also have some fixed kitchens on the ground," says Pastor Jimmy Scroggins of the Family Church in West Palm Beach. "We have the capacity to feed 350,000-meals-a-day if necessary. We're coordinating with FEMA, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, and we're ready to go should that need arise."  

​He says it's been tough to prepare for Hurricane Irma — especially since such storms tend to be unpredictable.

"The thing about a hurricane like this is that you don't even know how to pray," Pastor Scroggins says. "Obviously we would like to be spared the effects of a hurricane — on the other hand, this hurricane is probably going to hit somebody, and so no matter where it hits, we're going to be ready to help, and we're eager to do so."

​Amazingly, Irma was only one of three active hurricanes in the Atlantic basin this week — the last time that happened was in 2010.

While Florida is no stranger to hurricanes, having lived through another Category 5 storm, Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, cities like Miami are still bracing for Irma's impact.


Residents fill sandbags in preparation for Hurricane Irma in Miami Beach, Florida, on Sept. 7, 2017. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters )

Seafaring safety

The city is home to several oceanfront marinas that are particularly vulnerable to storm surges. While many boats usually docked at marinas were rushing to sail out this week, others remained in the water.

Making sure the marinas stay safe is one of the many things the City of Miami had to worry about this week.

"We are telling boat owners to make sure the boats are secure if they are docked on the marina," Alberto Parjus, the City of Miami's assistant city manager, tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury from the city's emergency operations centre.

"Some of them with vessels larger than 50 feet [15 metres] are asked to move them away, so they are moving to other locations up the Miami River, where they will be more secure for the storm."

Parjus says about 700 boats in the area are affected, with many being transported by trailer to locations in north Florida, away from the coastline.

People walk past debris in Nagua as Hurricane Irma moves off from the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, on Sept. 7, 2017. (Ricardo Rojas/Reuters)

After Hurricane Andrew, a law was passed in Florida that prevents marina owners from ordering boats to leave the marina after a hurricane warning is posted. This can complicate matters, Parjus explains.

"If they remain in the water, the boat owners and the boats are on their own," Parjus says. "We don't have any responsibility over them. That's a situation that has occurred in many storms. Usually they ended up on the coastline.

"We tell the boats' owners to secure the boats to the best of their abilities and make sure they take all necessary precautions, but we can't force them to move the boats." 


Eye of the storm

Given the impending storm, the city is encouraging all boat owners to get their vessels off the water in time.

"It's one of our priorities and we tell them way in advance that they have to move," Parjus notes. "Especially those in mooring, because the only way you have of holding to the position is the anchors, and some of them think by anchoring the boat on both ends, they're going to be able to go through the storm unharmed, and that's not the situation."

But why would anyone leave their boat in the water when they know one of the strongest hurricanes in history is about to hit?

"Some individuals are not residents of the area. Believe it or not, sometimes they're not aware of what's happening. Some people just don't make it here in time," Parjus explains. "Some individuals don't have the means to move them, some don't have any place on land to store the boats... So there's a lot of conditions that apply that they find themselves in this situation."


Hurricane Irma, shown in a satellite image from NASA. (NASA via Associated Press)

'Preparing for the worst'

While the lessons of Hurricane Andrew were hard won, the ominous forecast for Irma suggests that looking back to that previous storm as a model for how to handle this one isn't necessarily an option, Parjus points out.

"I would not have those expectations at this point," he says. "I think it's going to be totally different. But you never know — everybody's talking about this behaving in ways that nobody can really predict. A few blocks makes a big difference. The position where your boat is — right under a bridge, or right next to a building — would mitigate the effects of the winds on that particular vessel."

Parjus and his fellow city officials will be taking 12-hour shifts at the emergency operations centre during the storm and will staff the centre for "several weeks or days" depending on the severity of the storm and its aftermath.

"We are preparing for the worst — hopefully it won't happen," he says. "All assets are ready to react after the storm, so we will all do our best after it passes."

To hear Brent's full conversation with Miami assistant city manager Alberto Parjus, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.