Irma’s low waters explained

Editor’s note: This story originally ran  in the Panama City News Herald. Go to the website to see some of the digital tools used to enhance this story, including a before and after of the water I made using the Knightlab juxtapose tool. 

PANAMA CITY — With hundreds of yards of muddy bay bottom exposed, Irma became the perfect time for local fishermen to pick stranded eels out of the uncovered seagrass beds for bait.

“I found 10 to 12 eels in the short distance I walked … and large stone crabs, snails and hermit crabs,” said local Jeremy Acree, who also picked up a fish during his trek. “It was very different. All but one of the eels was dead.”

From Tampa Bay all the way to Mobile, Alabama, the Gulf Coast experienced what meteorologists refer to as a “blowout tide,” when the water drained from the coast, said National Weather Service Tallahassee Meteorologist Parks Camp. The low tide essentially is the opposite of a storm surge caused by strong winds.

“We had a long period of fairly strong northerly winds that pushed the water out,” Camp said. “It’s a lower water level near the coast, and the wind pushed the water (farther) out, where it will level out well in the Gulf.”

Then, as the winds weaken, the water will slip back into its normal ways.

In Bay County, starting at midnight Sunday, the water dropped 1.68 feet below the mean sea level by 9 a.m., almost 2 feet below the normal tide, according to Camp, causing the water to recede dramatically to the dismay of beached sea creatures. By about 3 a.m. Tuesday morning, the water had returned to normal.

“To see it to this extent is pretty rare,” Camp said.

At Capt. Anderson’s Marina, Operations Manager Pam Anderson said she has seen blowout tides before, particularly during the strong storms in the winter months, but Monday’s storm was the lowest she had ever seen the water in the marina.

“We had quite a lot of real estate,” Anderson said, laughing.

Most of the boats had left the marina in advance of Hurricane Irma, but the few that did stay “sunk into the mud,” she said. The boats came right back up, undamaged, along with the tide.
As the tides came back, like the boats everything returned to normal. The rising waters covered up the small island that had formed behind Treasure Island Marina. The beaches lost no sand in the storm, according to officials. And the fish, crabs and other wildlife got their habitat back, and likely suffered minimally as the water moved out slow enough to have them move with the water, according to Sea Grant Agent Scott Jackson, noting cool temperatures and periods of rain likely kept crustaceans like smaller grass shrimp relatively wet.

Even so, a representative from Gulf World Marine Park said wildlife could be stressed from the ordeal and asked people to report strandings to Florida Fish and Wildlife at 888-404-3922.

By Tuesday, the beaches were closed to swimmers as double red flags were flying because of some small swells caused by Irma’s time out in the Gulf, bringing the tides full circle.


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