SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – After churning across most of the northern Leeward Islands in the Caribbean Sea over the last three days, Hurricane Irma has set a course for the low-lying U.S. state of Florida, packing 150-mile-per-hour winds and expected storm surges of 6 to 12 feet by this weekend (see National Hurricane Center storm map, above). By Saturday, cargo operations at Florida’s major airports will cease as major U.S.-based carriers expand their cargo restrictions to include cities farther north of the initial landfall.
Hurricane Irma, which has been downgraded slightly to a Category 4 storm, is still being called one of the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricanes ever recorded and has killed at least 23 people. The storm, with hurricane-force winds extending out for more than 100 kilometers from the eye, is expected to make landfall in Florida on Saturday evening or early Sunday morning.
With mandatory evacuations in effect for much of South Florida, carriers and airports are rushing to secure their operations today and will likely begin either restricting flights or closing entirely in the next 24 hours. Seaports across the Caribbean and South Florida are also preparing to close.
One of the first major air hubs to be affected will be Miami International Airport (MIA). The main terminal remains open as of this morning, said Jack Varela, media and public relations officer for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, adding that MIA will only close “if severe damage or safety concerns from Hurricane Irma result in stranded passengers and non-essential airport employees being evacuated to nearby shelters after the storm.”
As of late this morning, Varela said, 271 departures and 324 arrivals have been cancelled at MIA because of Hurricane Irma, representing more than half of MIA’s average daily schedule.
United Airlines Cargo has expanded its cargo restrictions to include Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) and Orlando International Airport (MCO), saying that, as of 4 p.m. EDT today, restrictions will be expanded “to include all freight, mail and PetSafe to, from or through JAX or MCO.” At Tampa International Airport (TPA), United Airlines Cargo said that, by early Saturday morning, “all products except non-perishable GEN freight and mail are restricted to and from TPA.”
At Delta Cargo, similar restrictions are in place across all cargo products handled by the carrier in Florida. In addition to the southern operations at MIA, MCO, TPA and Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Delta is shutting down cargo ops at Fort Myers (RSW), Melbourne (MLB), Palm Beach (PBI), and Sarasota (SRQ).
American Airlines Cargo has added JAX to its embargo list, but says that operations here in San Juan (SJU, see photo at right) are back, as the storm took a more northwesterly route on Wednesday and Thursday, sparing the Greater Antilles islands of Puerto Rico, Dominica and Cuba from catastrophic damage. San Juan was without power for most of Thursday, but the electricity has been restored for most of the city by this morning.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, infrastructure damage has been heavy on the islands such as Antigua, Anguilla, Barbuda, Nassau (Bahamas), Providenciales (Turks and Caicos), St. Kitts, St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands) and St. Martin. All cargo operations on these islands are offline until further notice.
After this weekend, Hurricane Irma’s likely path is expected to continues up through Georgia and into Tennessee, however the storm is expected to weaken to a tropical storm by early next week, as it moves inland. NOAA said that, “there is a chance of direct impacts in portions of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, but it is too early to specify the magnitude and location of these impacts.”
Not to be forgotten is the next Atlantic storm spinning about 600 kilometers to the east of the northern Leeward Islands – Hurricane Jose – which has grown rapidly into a dangerous Category 4 storm. Jose is expected to take a track similar to that of Irma over the weekend, carrying it over some of the same hard-hit islands of Antigua, Anguilla, Barbuda, St. Martin and others.
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