With 7 billion hits, Hurricane Irma nearly broke the Internet

A television crew endures Irma’s wind and rain while broadcasting from a flooded street in downtown Miami on Sept. 10.
A television crew endures Irma’s wind and rain while broadcasting from a flooded street in downtown Miami on Sept. 10.

Hurricane Irma may go down as the first hurricane to truly go viral.

Between Sept. 1 and 30, when both Irma and Maria swirled across the tropics, the National Hurricane Center website recorded over 500 million page views resulting in 9 billion hits. That’s right: billion. Seven billion were linked to Irma alone, the agency reported in a wrap-up of the storm released Monday.

As the Cat 5 storm approached in September, a single day’s page views clocked in at about 57 million. That surpasses the total for Hurricane Matthew, the first storm in a decade to trigger statewide warnings across Florida, for its entire 12-day duration.

That also beats Kim Kardashian’s naked booty, which got just 16 million views over a few days when she claimed to break the Internet in 2014.

kim kardashian
In 2014, Kim Kardashian posted a naked picture of herself with the hashtag #breaktheinternet that generated about 16 million page views over a few days. Vivien Killilea Getty Images

Spokesman Dennis Feltgen, who maintains the agency’s Facebook page, said he knew Irma was exploding into a monster storm online, and not just IRL (In Real Life), the morning of Sept. 5.

Just after he posted an update warning the storm had ballooned overnight into a dangerous Cat 5 storm as it approached the Leeward Islands, on track to becoming the strongest on record outside the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, comments and shares started flying. He was so amazed he later snapped a screen grab: more than 4 million total reaches.

“My jaw dropped,” said Feltgen, who started his career in meteorology when storm information was still relayed by teletype to TV stations. “I’d never seen a million before, let alone 4 million.”

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National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen snapped this screen grab of the agency’s Facebook page after he posted an update early Sept. 5 warning that Hurricane Irma had intensified to a Cat 5 storm headed for the Leeward Islands.

As the storm slid along the Leeward Islands and in between Cuba and the Bahamas headed for the Florida coast, the audience for updates posted by the center gained steam, with about 200,000 users on the web site looking at advisories posted every three hours. Twitter traffic was even higher with 98 million impressions, nearly three times more than Hurricane Harvey. By the time the storm fizzled out near Columbus, Georgia on Sept. 11, Feltgen’s Facebook posts had reached more than 18.9 million users.

“It wasn’t that long ago when you wouldn’t be getting [information] from anywhere but local TV, and he’s taking the advisory from a teletype,” Feltgen said. “It’s amazing.”

The social media numbers were included in the center’s after-storm report, an analysis compiled for every tropical cyclone tracked by the agency. The report offers a look at the storm’s history and a tally of final windspeeds, storm surge, rainfall and other factors, as well as an assessment of forecaster accuracy.

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Irma left a swath of damage across Big Pine Key after making landfall in nearby Cudjoe Key. Mike Stocker Sun Sentinel

During its 14-day trek across the Atlantic and through the Caribbean Islands, Irma grew into a massive storm, fueled by repeated eyewall replacements. It made seven landfalls, four as a Cat 5 storm, and hit Cuba as the first Cat 5 since 1932. The hurricane made its first U.S. landfall in the Lower Keys on Sept. 10, before making a second landfall near Marco Island later that afternoon.

Forecasters generally called the storm’s development correctly, the report said, although it intensified into a tropical storm sooner than expected. They also successfully predicted Irma’s track, with 30 to 40 percent fewer errors than the five-year average for forecasts. But they again struggled to predict intensity, in part because they didn’t expect the storm to spend as much time over Cuba, which weakened it.

Storm surge warnings in South Florida, where water reached five to eight feet above ground level in the Lower Keys and six to 10 feet around the cape to Everglades City, were mostly accurate. But the west coast was overstated, the report said, because Irma came ashore further south than expected.

And while it may have looked like Miami was drowning under the sweeping surge pushed ashore, the report concluded parts of downtown were actually flooded by a combination of heavy rain, stormwater and seawater coming up through the city’s aging drainage system. Soil sampled two days after the storm around Brickell showed patterns that indicated surge could be blamed for flooding a block or two from the bay, but further inland was caused by heavy rain unable to drain into the bay.

Including an analysis of social media is a relatively new aspect of the report. Matthew’s 2016 report made no mention of public posting. Online traffic for Harvey, which spent three days in the Gulf of Mexico before slamming Texas in late August, was summarized in a single sentence. Irma was a game-changer.

“We’re handling it the way it needs to be handled, but social media, as you and I both know, is a very powerful tool,” Feltgen said.

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David and Dee Thorne on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma damaged their home, forcing them to live in an RV while they complete repairs. CHARLES TRAINOR JR.

The uptick in hurricane consumption has also spawned a new generation of amateur forecasters that Feltgen warned should be viewed cautiously.

“There’s a lot of nonsense out there,” he said. “You can go online and find the spaghetti tracks and look at the eight, 12- and 16-day models and plot something and it looks like the real thing....Sure, you have a lot of followers, but you could be leading people down the wrong path.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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