Hurricane

Irma’s powerful winds cause eerie retreat of ocean waters, stranding manatees and boats

A woman holds on to a NO WAKE buoy in a drained Buttonwood Bay in Key Largo before Hurricane Irma arrived.
A woman holds on to a NO WAKE buoy in a drained Buttonwood Bay in Key Largo before Hurricane Irma arrived. David Goodhue

Hurricane Irma emptied bays and inlets much the same way Moses was once said to have parted the Red Sea, temporarily stranding boats and manatees before the ocean rushed back in with a vengeance.

Irma’s winds were so powerful that water was shoved away from shorelines in the hours before the center of the storm arrived on Caribbean islands, in the Bahamas, the Keys, and along the west coast of Florida.

The eerie reverse storm surge phenomenon left residents awestruck — and some brazen enough to walk out on the mucky flats previously covered by water and fit for swimming.

Curious people wandering around a drained Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon were warned in an urgent text by the National Hurricane Center to “MOVE AWAY FROM THE WATER!” because once winds blowing out of the east shifted to the west, the water levels would rise within minutes and swallow them up.

At Buttonwood Bay in Key Largo, people ventured out onto a surreal moonscape to pose for photos embracing a “Slow No Wake” buoy that’s usually bobbing in 5 to 8 feet of water. A swimming platform was aground. Where was Buttonwood Bay?

“In areas with strong offshore winds, the water gets pushed away and it looks like an extreme low tide,” said Brian Haus, professor of ocean sciences and director of the storm surge simulator at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “I’ve seen it at Turkey Point, in parts of Biscayne Bay. It’s worse in shallow places or a relatively enclosed basin like Buttonwood Bay.

“It can happen fast, and the danger is if people go out like in the case of a tsunami and say, ‘Oh, let’s pick up shells,’ and then the wind comes back around and the water surges in.”

Beached manatees were found north of Sarasota and in Manatee County. Manatees are “accustomed to being tidally stranded at times,” and females can beach themselves during mating season to rest, Nadia Gordon, a marine mammal biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told the Bradenton Herald. Nevertheless, residents and law enforcement officers dragged two of the huge sea cows on a tarp back to deeper water. Marcelo Clavijo posted photos on Facebook of rescuers knee deep in mud, adding that it was “a pretty cool experience” but “now back to reality of a hurricane coming.”

But before Category 3 Irma hit the area, Tim Scheu posted video of dogs rollicking on the exposed ocean floor.

“Tampa bay now an effective dog park as we wait for #irma. With @CityofTampa parks closed ahead of storm this is the best we’ve got,” he tweeted.

Receding waters pushed by winds howling southeast to northwest caused strange sights in the Bahamas.

“I am in disbelief right now!” tweeted @Kaydi_K. “This is Long Island, Bahamas and the ocean water is missing!”

Adrian@deejayeasya tweeted “Sea gone dry” from the Bahamas on Friday.

Haus said he will be studying the effects of storm surge — reported as 10 feet in the lower Keys, 3 to 6 feet along Florida’s Gulf Coast and 3 to 5 feet in Jacksonville — and the accuracy of forecasting models in the wake of Irma.

“Storm surge is tricky because it really depends on the details of the storm track and local topography,” he said. “Just a slight change can make a big difference.”

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