Hurricane Irma, measured at a category five, has already been deemed one of the most powerful storms ever recorded over the Atlantic. It struck the northeast of the Caribbean with terrifying force last Wednesday, September 6. With battering torrential rain and hurricane force winds, Irma caused wreckage and flooding all the way from Barbuda to Puerto Rico before moving to islands farther west and eventually reaching Florida on Sunday, September 10, as The New York Times reports. Since last Wednesday, airlines in the region prepared to cancel flights that were in the path of the hurricane. Airports – major and small - also had to close down due to the storm’s potentially catastrophic impact. Now that the storm has passed, the affected areas, airports and airlines are assessing damage and updating travelers on their plans to restore operations soon.

Irma’s impact on travel and aviation

On Thursday, September 7, as Hurricane Irma headed towards Florida, airlines were preparing to cancel Florida flights that were in the path of the hurricane while many major airports had to be shut down, Key West International being among the first. FlightAware.com reported that about 170 flights, about two-thirds of those scheduled, were cancelled by Wednesday afternoon at Luis Munoz Marin Airport International Airport near San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cancellations at Miami International Airport were still minimal on Wednesday but topped 300 flights for Friday, according to the tracking service. In Georgia, nearly 1,000 flights have already been cancelled out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world.

According to Loop News, American Airlines began shutting down operations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Sarasota and West Palm Beach on Friday, September 8, and cancelling hundreds of flights throughout the weekend. JetBlue Airways announced on Wednesday afternoon that it had cancelled about 130 flights. Delta cancelled about 350 flights, as crosswinds gusts made it dangerous for smaller, regional jets to land. FlightAware.com reported that there were more than 3,100 flight cancellations within, to and from the US on Sunday, September 10. American was hit the hardest with 743 cancellations, followed by Southwest with 633.

American, JetBlue, United and Delta airlines had offered waivers letting customers change travel plans to Florida and the Caribbean without the usual charges for changing a ticket although dates and locations varied. The Washington Post reports, that as of Monday, September 11, American Airlines expanded its travel alert to include more than 50 airports. Special fares of 99 USD each way for travel in the main cabin and 199 USD one way in the premium cabin will be expanded to include all cities covered in the waiver as well as Charleston, Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach in South Carolina and Savannah, Ga. The fares are supposed to apply to direct, single-leg flights out of the locations covered in the travel alert through Sunday, September 17. The airline also said that the 99 USD fare cap would apply to tickets for those returning to these locations from September 10 through September 17.

Last week the airline offered similar fares for travelers leaving Florida, following an announcement by JetBlue. JetBlue said it reduced fares to 99 USD and 159 USD one-way for remaining seats on flights leaving the hurricane's path including Florida and the Caribbean. Other carriers, including United and Delta, also announced that they would cap fares for people fleeing Hurricane Irma. In addition, carriers used larger aircraft and added flights, hoping to accommodate the large amounts of people trying to leave Florida. In some cases, carriers also said they would waive change fees. The commotion comes as carriers are still issuing waivers for flight changes affected by Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas' Gulf Coast last month as a category four hurricane. However, Hurricane Irma was a much more unpredictable storm than Harvey, thus the impact might be larger.

Major airports in Florida are now starting to plan reopening, but flight cancellations were extending north late Monday as Hurricane Irma moved through Georgia. More than 14,000 flights have been cancelled to and from airports in the Caribbean and Florida, including 10,000 in Florida, according to the tracking service FlightAware.com. Although Irma has now been downgraded to a tropical depression, Karla Cobreiro, Media and Public Relations Officer at Florida’s largest airport, has commented that there were still no passenger flights scheduled at Miami International Airport on Monday, September 11.” Some airlines were supposed to fly personnel and crew members to MIA in preparation for flights to resume. After a damage assessment, we will determine if passenger flights can resume on Tuesday,” Cobreiro said. Miami International Airport and Orlando International Airport are both starting the cleanup process, and targeting Tuesday for reopening. “MIA’s airlines are gradually resuming their schedules tomorrow, September 12,” Miami International Airport tweeted Monday afternoon. Earlier in the day, the airport tweeted they would resume at 7 am on Tuesday after teams assessed the damages.

Orlando International Airport has said that they would reopen its passenger terminal and TSA security lines starting around 3:30 am Tuesday and will also "phase-in limited commercial operations". They began assessing damage to the airport late on Monday and said areas needing attention included flooding in the Main Terminal, torn canopies on the arrival and departure curbs, and debris on roadways. The airport has asked passengers to contact airlines on their flight status. Palm Beach International reopened Monday afternoon with “limited service.” “At this time, Delta plans to resume service today”, Palm Beach International tweeted Monday. “Other airlines plan to resume Tuesday”. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport announced they would resume commercial operations at 4 am on Tuesday. Flights are also expected to restart at Tampa International Airport. Jacksonville International Airport said the terminal building would be open again around 3 am on Tuesday morning. Officials in Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Meyers say there was no damage to the airport, but restoration of power on Monday was needed before flights could take off and land, according to CNN News. For the Caribbean, Miami and Fort Lauderdale are vital, as they usually expect a lot of air traffic coming through these airports.

 Sgt. Priscilla Desormeaux

In the Caribbean, one of the world's most famous airports has been destroyed by Hurricane Irma as The Telegraph reports, Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten, where planes fly low over a beach as they land and take off, has been ripped apart by the 185 mph winds, which tore through the airport, collapsing one of its jet bridges and covering its runway with debris. The airport which is on the Dutch side of St. Martin Island was shut down last Tuesday as a safety precaution. The airport on St. Barts was also closed, and those in Anguilla and St. Martin were open only to the military, rescue crews and aid organizations. Others, including St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, banned flyovers. Nevertheless, Travel Agent Central writes that on Friday, September 8 some Caribbean airports began to reopen clearing the debris with more airlines adding seats to help customers who are still in the path of the storm.

Major US carriers including Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United and Southwest were waiving change and cancellation fees and had cancelled some flights altogether to certain Caribbean airports last week. American Airlines said it had repositioned some planes to get passengers out of some of the islands as early as possible. Delta reported that since last Wednesday the airline has added more than 5,000 extra seats and 24 extra flights in the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Florida. Nevertheless, Delta had to cancel flights in St. Thomas Island. The airline also delayed its evening flights in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as the storm hit. Southwest Airlines cancelled flights to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and San Juan on Wednesday and Thursday. It also cancelled flights on Friday and Saturday to Nassau and Havana. Last Tuesday, British Airways cancelled some of its flights to the Caribbean as well. In a statement, the airline commented: "As a result of the expected storm caused by Hurricane Irma, we have been advised by Antigua airport authorities that operations will be significantly impacted. We are doing all we can to get our customers to their final destinations and some customers will be able to re-book with Caribbean Airlines via Port of Spain or with our partner American Airlines via Miami”, The Express reports.

In the aftermath of the storm, as The Independent writes, British Airways is offering a waiver to customers who booked to fly to Antigua, St. Kitts, Punta Cana, Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, and Nassau before September 10. “They can choose to travel to an alternative Caribbean destination or delay the flight to another date before September 30,” says the airline. Virgin Atlantic claims that any of its passengers booked to travel to, from or through Antigua, Havana, Orlando and Miami before September 12 can switch to an alternative date or destination travelling on or before October 14. “Customers currently in any of these resorts also have the option of returning home early,” says the airline. Anyone booked to travel on a US carrier can take advantage of a wide range of travel waivers. Southwest Airlines, for example, will allow passengers booked to fly to Florida, the Bahamas, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and San Juan in Puerto Rico up to September 11 with the option to rebook within the next two weeks.

Irma’s toll on lives and property

Irma hit the islands of Barbuda, St. Barthélemy, St. Martin, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands as well as US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday. It then turned to the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday, passing the low-lying islands of Turks and Caicos and parts of the Bahamas by Friday. On Saturday, the storm, which briefly fell to category four, made landfall on the north coast of Cuba as a category five hurricane. On Sunday, it hit the Florida Keys as a category four hurricane, moving over south-west Florida and then crossing the entire state over approximately 30 hours, according to the The Guardian.

In its aftermath, Irma could be considered one of the most destructive storms ever recorded. Massive damage has been reported across the Caribbean with homes and critical facilities flattened, power and communications down. The hurricane-force winds, storm surges and torrential rainfall caused flooding, debris flying and roofs being ripped off buildings. With flood waters and trees, power lines downed, roads became impassable.

As the hurricane approached, officials across the islands pleaded with people to follow advisories to evacuate to shelters and seek higher ground. According to the Guardian, the Bahamas Prime Minister, Hubert Minnis, said people were evacuated from six islands in the south to the capital, Nassau, in the largest storm evacuation in the Bahamas’ history. In Florida, county-wide evacuation routes and zone maps have been distributed, and evacuation plans and shelters also set up. As The Daily Mail writes, an estimated 5.6million people have been ordered to evacuate Florida and Georgia ahead of the deadly storm in the largest evacuation in US history.

As the Financial Times reports, Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said that Irma had destroyed 95 percent of the buildings on Barbuda, a tiny island of 1,400 inhabitants that was hit the first by the storm. Browne estimates the reconstruction costs at 100 million USD. Citizens were being evacuated to the island of Antigua, which avoided the worst of the storm. At least five people died on the island of St. Martin, which comprises the French territory of St. Martin and the Dutch domain Sint Maarten. According to a local official, Daniel Gibb, The French part of St. Martin was “95 percent destroyed”. Aerial footage from the Dutch defense ministry showed widespread destruction.

One person died in Anguilla, the British overseas territory. Alan Duncan, UK Foreign Office minister, said the damage was “severe and in places critical”. Four were killed in the US Virgin Islands and the only hospital on main island of St. Thomas was badly damaged. A state of emergency was also declared in the British Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico, the terrifying winds and torrential rains left 6,000 people in shelters and at least three people dead. In the Dominican Republic more than 5,000 people were evacuated as buildings were flattened, while Haiti, which shares the island with Dominican Republic, was spared the worst of the storm. In Turks and Caicos electricity was cut on Grand Turk island. Governor John Freeman said some of the residents had been moved to shelters. As of Tuesday, the death toll in the Caribbean rose to 37.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Lally

Since Irma began its assault on southern Florida on Sunday, it was still swirling north on Monday, causing new damage in areas where many residents had sought refuge over the weekend. The storm’s rain bands reached out hundreds of miles beyond its center, wreaking destruction with storm surges and flash flooding throughout much of the nearby states of Georgia and South Carolina. As The New York Times reports, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida said that over all, Irma’s damage to the state was not as bad as the worst forecasts had predicted, but that some areas were thoroughly devastated. About 62 percent of residents remained without power while northern Florida, including the city of Jacksonville, was flooding.

In Southern Florida residents faced fuel shortages, as well as downed power lines and standing flood water. The Keys, a group of low-lying islands, were hit the hardest. “I just hope everybody survived,” Gov. Scott said after flying over the islands on Monday. “It’s horrible what we saw.” At least 42 people have died due to the storm, including at least eight in the continental US, according to The Associated Press. The full extent of the damage to property is not yet known, but according to The Daily Mail, the hurricane has the potential to do 125 billion USD worth of damage in Miami alone. The scale of the damage to the Florida Keys will become clearer by Tuesday, when residents will be allowed back in. 

Hurricane Irma made landfall just days after Hurricane Harvey caused record flooding in Texas. Irma’s maximum sustained winds of 185 mph (290 kmph) have been matched by only three other Atlantic storms, the latest one - Hurricane Wilma - occurred in 2005.  Flooding from a storm surge in Jacksonville, Florida exceeded a record set by Hurricane Dora in 1964, the US National Weather Service reported.