Tuesday 24 September 2019

Explainer: How the south-west is set to be worst hit - and how it is preparing for Ophelia

Ireland is set to bear the brunt of Hurricane Ophelia
Ireland is set to bear the brunt of Hurricane Ophelia

Ralph Riegel

FALLEN trees, downed electricity lines and flying slates pose the greatest hazard to life as Ireland braces itself for Hurricane Ophelia and winds which could gust to 130km/h.

While Hurricane Ophelia is set to be downgraded to a severe tropical storm as it sweeps past Ireland, weather experts warned that it could still pose the greatest risk to life from a storm since Hurricane Debbie raged over Ireland and the UK in 1961.

A total of 15 people died in that infamous September 1961 storm, 12 in the Republic and six in Northern Ireland, the bulk of whom were killed due to accidents caused by fallen trees. A total of 50 people were  injured.

The worst tragedy was in Cavan where four people, a woman, her two daughters and one granddaughter, when their car was crushed by a fallen tree.

Latest guidance from the National Hurricane Centre.
Bear in mind times shown are AST so add 5 hours.
Latest guidance from the National Hurricane Centre. Bear in mind times shown are AST so add 5 hours.

Ophelia will sweep past Ireland and the UK on the 30th anniversary of the great storm of 1987 which UK forecasters famously underestimated.

Emergency plans have already been enacted across the Irish counties most likely to be hit by Ophelia on Monday ranging from Cork and Kerry in the south through to Galway and Mayo in the west.

While the track of the storm is still not precisely known, Ophelia's worst winds are expected to be felt by coastal communities ranging from Castletownbere in west Cork past Dingle in Kerry through Kilkee and Lahinch in Clare to Barna and Clifden in Galway and Cloghmore and Belmullet in Mayo.

Fishing vessels and commercial shipping have been racing to port over the past 36 hours to escape Ophelia's savage winds and seas.

Bus Eireann has already cancelled all school transport in Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo.

The transport authority said that, given the Status Red warning issued by Met Eireann, it took the decision on safety grounds.

"Many of the 116,000 children who use the School Transport Scheme daily make their way to pick up points to board the bus, on minor roads, and could therefore be exposed to severe elements. Bus Éireann want to eliminate any risk this might result in," a spokesperson said.

Services are expected to resume Tuesday.

It is now also expected that both primary and secondary schools will close in areas of the south-west and west most likely to be hit by the worst of Ophelia's high winds.

Transport systems across Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo are also expected to be severely hit for 24 hours from 9am Monday.

Both Shannon and Cork Airports are bracing themselves for potential flight delays and cancellations.

Motorists have also been warned by the Gardaí and AA RoadWatch to only undertake journeys in wind-hit areas if absolutely necessary.

Drivers have also been warned to be conscious of the dangers posed by fallen trees and downed electricity lines as well as road flooding.

In some areas, high-span or exposed bridges may be closed during the worst wind gusts.

While Ophelia reached Category 3 hurricane status south of the Azores with winds consistently raging to a staggering 185km/h, the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) predicted it will weaken as it approaches the Irish coast.

However, wind gusts could still reach 130km/h.

The Department of Defence's Office of Emergency Planning has met and  is working closely with Irish local authorities, State agencies and civil support groups such as the Gardaí, Irish Coastguard and Civil Defence to ensure Ireland has an effective response to the worst fall-out from Hurricane Ophelia.

Environment Minister Denis Naughten urged people to take all precautions and to heed the warnings by weather forecasters and State agencies such as the Gardaí.

He said that there is a risk of property damage - but the focus will be on the protection of life.

"This could be a very severe storm and it is something we will have to prepare for with the likelihood of more such storms in the coming years," he said.

Met Eireann said the final 24 hours before Ophelia sweeps past Ireland will be critical with even small course changes likely to prove decisive.

Weather forecasters believe the most violent elements of Ophelia will be off Ireland's western seaboard - but severe winds around the periphery have the potential to cause severe damage in Ireland.

"The storm itself will (likely) stay off-shore but we will get the effects of it," Pat Clarke said.

"It is going to pick up speed when it leaves the warm waters behind it and it gets caught up in the normal flow patterns that exist at this time of year. Once that happens, it will start moving really fast on Sunday night, especially during the course of Monday. Monday is going to be the critical time."

Met Eireann said people should take the Status Red warning extremely seriously.

"We do not issue warnings lightly. And they were brought in to highlight weather events that offer a threat to life, limb and property," he added.

Areas which have previously experienced coastal or tidal flooding such as Dingle and Skibbereen are now monitoring events on an hourly basis.

However, experts believe the greatest risk to life is posed by fallen trees and flying slates.

Gardaí urged people to take sensible precautions and not to go outdoors during the height of the winds unless it was an emergency.

Local authorities are liaising with both Gardaí over the threat posed by fallen trees and flying slates. Special tree cutting crews are already on standby in the counties most at risk.

The ESB also has repair crews on high alert.

However, householders who may be hit by power outages because of the storm were warned that repairs will be undertaken only when it is safe to do so for the repair crews involved.

Schools across Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo heeded the warning to close amid fears of dangerous winds from Hurricane Ophelia.

Today, Clare's emergency response agencies urged all schools to close across the county and for members of the public to avoid all

 non-urgent travel.

The appeal came amid forecasts that the county could be facing the brunt of Hurricane Ophelia's impact on Ireland.

The Clare Inter Agency Co-ordination Group met in Ennis and said everything possible was being done to prepare for the extreme weather event.

Clare County Council, An Garda Síochána and the HSE have discussed the necessary plans for responding to the Status Red weather warning. The response is based on learning from previous adverse weather events," a spokesperson said.

"The agencies have expressed particular concern that the public would take every precaution to avoid unnecessary travel and take heed of ongoing updates from Met Éireann and Government agencies."

Meanwhile, Cork City Council acknowledged that it could face tidal flooding across the city as a consequence of the storm front.

The Cork City Crisis Management Team met yesterday evening to discuss the primary threat facing Ireland's second city.

"Emergency crews are on standby," a spokesperson said. "Cork City Hall is advising citizens to remain vigilant and to keep themselves updated  in regard to the evolving weather situation."

"At present, data suggests that Morrison's Island and South Terrace are the areas of the city most likely to be effected by any flooding tomorrow (Monday) afternoon."

The council stressed that regular weather updates will be offered over the next 48 hours by email, their social media pages and by local radio.

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