Hurricane Irma makes landfall in Florida on Sept. 10, 2017. Image source: NASA Earth Observatory.
As the most intense storm in ten years smashed its way through the Caribbean, the eastern coast of the United States prepared itself for disaster. Aimed at the tip of Florida, nobody was sure whether hurricane Irma would swing west and hit the gulf states or veer east and tear up the Georgia coastline. In preparation, Georgia governor Nathan Deal ordered 540,000 people to evacuate counties closest to the Atlantic - including Liberty County, where St. Catherines Island is located.
And so, for the second time in as many years, the island braced itself for impact. All staff and guests scattered to the mainland, leaving the island vacant of human inhabitants. The lemurs were divided. The free-ranging troops (about 30 lemurs) were left to weather the storm on their own. The remaining 18 were packed into crates (animal carriers, not boxes) and taken to the Atlanta Zoo. Joe and Josephine, the two hornbills, were also taken to shelter off island. Zipper and the Sandhill Gang stayed behind.
While Florida absorbed most of Irma's impact, we in Georgia saw our share of power outages and fallen trees as the entire state was declared in a state of emergency. Thankfully, everyone on St. Cats survived. All of the lemurs and cranes made their way safely through the storm. All of the interns found their way home and back without injury. Each of the structures on the island that were standing before Irma still are. The beaches, however, have been decimated. Any sea turtle or terrapin nests were wiped clean, eggs washed into the sea. The dunes that were eroded by Matthew last September are now completely gone.
Once again, St. Catherines Island emerged from a fierce storm relatively unscathed, its residents (for the most part) evading death or collapse. But, the country still waits for Jose and Maria to visit. Will the island's luck hold? We call hurricanes "natural disasters," but human impacts have a lot to do with the intensity of storms like these. As climate change increases, it's likely that damage to coastlines, displacement of people, and economic hardship that come with tropical storms will too. But, as we experience, we learn. Every storm is an opportunity to study and, hopefully, to raise awareness about what we can do to save our planet.
South Beach, once home to large driftwood trees and a sand dune ecosystem is now just a flat expanse of sand and debris. Image source: Asa Heckman