Eleven years since last major hurricane landfall and why it matters

Hurricane Matthew with the eye just off the coast of Florida - Oct 7, 2016

Hurricane Matthew with the eye just off the coast of Florida – Oct 7, 2016

A major hurricane is defined as one that has winds of 115 miles per hour or higher, also known as a category three or higher. The last hurricane to meet that critical standard while making it ashore along the U.S. coastline did so eleven years ago today. We all know the story by now – it was the 21st named storm of the historic 2005 season and its name was Wilma. Nothing matching the wind speed of Wilma has made landfall since. Why is so much made of this seemingly important record?

First of all, historically speaking, major hurricanes cause about 80% of the damage from all hurricanes striking the United States. It stands to reason that the stronger the hurricane, the more damage it will cause. We rank hurricanes based on their wind speed and nothing else. The Saffir-Simpson scale was developed in the early 1970s for the purpose of understanding what a hurricane’s winds were capable of.. Since then, it has undergone unofficial changes that led the public, and the media, to believe that storm surge and air pressure were part of the original intent of the scale. This was wrong and still is today. The categories of hurricanes that we know as being 1-5 have nothing to do with storm surge, pressure or rain fall. As such, the term “major hurricane” refers to a category three or higher hurricane based on wind speed and wind speed alone.

Major hurricane landfalls in the U.S. are rare. We have seen periods of several years go by without any major hurricane landfalls. It takes the right set of atmospheric and oceanic conditions to get a major hurricane to form in the first place let alone allow it to maintain itself all the way to landfall. However, when it does happen, the damage is usually immense in scale.

Some years, like 2004 and 2005, a rash of major hurricanes make landfall. In fact, beginning with Charley on August 13, 2004 and ending with Wilma on October 24, 2005, a total of seven major hurricanes hit the U.S. This is almost (if not more) incredible than the current record of ZERO major hurricanes hitting the U.S. How could the variability be so extreme? Seven in what amounts to really a little over a year’s time to nothing in over eleven years? Most say it’s just dumb luck. In the grand scheme of geologic time, 11 years is nothing. It’s like playing roulette. You can bet red over and over and over and never hit it. Then, for reasons unknown, red comes up seven times in a row. Pure chance. Now, the weather does not work quite like that but luck has in fact been on our side….or has it?

I am not alone in making the argument that the lack of so-called major hurricanes has spared us from disaster. Let’s take a look at the hurricanes that have managed to reach the U.S. since that fateful day eleven years ago:

  1. 2008 – Gustav and Ike – both responsible for tens of billions in damage and numerous deaths
  2. 2011 – Irene – another costly hurricane that affected areas from North Carolina to New York and even parts of New England
  3. 2012 Isaac and Sandy – combined, the two “category one” hurricanes made 2012 one of the costliest and deadliest hurricane seasons in years
  4. 2016 РHermine and Matthew Рagain, two low-end hurricanes that wreaked havoc on Florida and the Carolinas with Matthew being one of the deadliest hurricanes in over four years while coming dangerously close to being an absolute catastrophe  for parts of the east-central coast of Florida

What do all of these hurricanes have in common? Water. A majority of the damage and most of the deaths were the result of water – mostly storm surge. In the case of Matthew, it was excessive rain that once again led to historic flooding and loss of life due to people driving vehicles in to flooded areas.

The dollar amount for all of these hurricanes is simply staggering. We’re talking over $100 billion in combined damage, probably more when considering the long-term economic toll on the regions that were impacted. None were “major hurricanes”. Something has to change because what on earth are we going to do when a “real” major hurricane shows up again?

I wrote in a blog post several months back about the lack of hurricane activity being analogous to having a lowered immune system. We know that hurricanes have not become extinct. Matthew was a grim reminder of that fact. So many people say they had no idea of what was coming in terms of the flooding. How can this be? I’ll tell you how. Here’s another stat for you: 17 years. That’s how long it had been since the last “we had no idea the flooding would be this bad” for North Carolina. Floyd in 1999 was the last such event. Floyd was a powerful category 4 at one point with 155 mph winds that forced millions of people to evacuate across the Southeast coast. The hurricane weakened dramatically leading up to landfall and was a category two by the time it reached the NC coast. What was the primary damage and killing agent? Water. Storm surge at the coast and an overland surge of rain water for inland areas. No one would ever forget Floyd – well, not for 17 years at least. I guess 17 years is long enough to forget because, well, you know, people said Matthew took them by surprise. Ugh. Just ugh….

We need to do better. The focus on major hurricanes is out of touch with the reality that too many people now live in harm’s way; and not just along the coast, so that ALL hurricanes, and tropical storms for that matter, should be considered dangerous.

To be fair, I think the media does a great job at conveying the risks. The Weather Channel led the way on a national front when Dr. Steve Lyons first introduced the graphical impact scale showing which hazards posed the most risk for a particular event. Since then, other efforts have been made to alert the public as to what is coming and how to avoid it.

The National Hurricane Center has put in to their public advisories the “Hazards Affecting Land” section. This is the equivalent of spelling it out for everyone in harm’s way – I use it to plan my attack with the equipment that I set up. Why don’t more people know about this?

At the end of the day, people focus on the scale Рthe scale that was invented by two brilliant people for one purpose and one purpose alone: wind damage potential. With the exception of Andrew in 1992, wind has been the least of our problems. Building codes have helped in the decades since Andrew but nothing is being done on a grand scale to combat the issue water.  We can and must do better with our education and awareness programs.

It is time to focus on the entire package. Hurricanes bring with them four main weapons, not just wind. More attention needs to be placed on storm surge and rain fall. Perhaps a new, modern rating system for tropical storms and hurricanes would help. Might I suggest that we take the hazard with the highest potential for damage and loss of life and use it to rank the hurricane. Example would be Ike. We knew it had a lethal, 20 feet plus storm surge coming with it. That’s a category five in my book. Don’t think so? Look at the damage on Bolivar peninsula and elsewhere. Homes swept clean. Cat-5 which means EVERYBODY LEAVES. As it was, Ike teetered around being a category one and two right up until landfall. So many people I talk to say, “When it reaches a three, I pay attention and plan to leave”. This is not good on so many levels.

As for rain? Same thing. The tools are there to know ahead of time that a tropical cyclone will bring enough rain to a region to cause life-threatening flooding. We already see those very words mentioned in official NWS/NHC products. To this I say give it a rank. If it is life-threatening, it is at least a category three, maybe higher. Assign the ranking based on the single biggest risk factor. In the case of future Katrina and Andrew situations, they are a five no mater what and remain a five until after landfall.

These are just ideas based on my 21 years of seeing it all go down in the field. I have been there and have seen the results in person. So many people tell me that they had no idea it would be so bad and in almost every situation they were talking about a category one or two hurricane.

Wilma was the last major hurricane to hit the USA. Perhaps it can be the last time we refer to a hurricane as being major based on wind speed alone. I applaud the weather community, the media and the NWS/NHC for doing all they can to convey risk. More needs to be done to re-wire the collective thought process so that ALL hurricanes are thought of as potential killers, no matter their ranking.

Something to ponder as we move beyond the eleven year mark since Wilma. Will 2017 give us another chance to get it right? Or at least do way better? I guess we will find out soon enough.

M. Sudduth 9:10 AM ET Oct 24


Season not over yet

NHC outlook map with hurricane Nicole still churning away in the north Atlantic while we watch an area of disturbed weather near the southeast Bahamas

NHC outlook map with hurricane Nicole still churning away in the north Atlantic while we watch an area of disturbed weather near the southeast Bahamas

Here we are getting close to late October and the Atlantic hurricane season is still going strong. Believe it or not, we still have Nicole on the map and yes, it is still a hurricane. In fact, the surface wind energy is being translated in to the North Atlantic enough so that large swells are radiating out from Nicole are reaching the Caribbean Sea and the East Coast of the U.S. Nicole is likely to remain a hurricane for another day or so before finally encountering water that is cold enough to strip it of its warm-core tropical characteristics.

In the meantime, an area of disturbed weather has developed in the vicinity of the southeast Bahamas and has some potential for further organization over the next few days. Right now, upper level winds are just too strong to allow much to happen but the system will bring periods of showers and occasional gusty winds to portions of the Bahamas as it drifts slowly eastward.

Later in the week, computer models suggest that upper level winds could relax some and allow for slow development of a weak low pressure area somewhere over the southwest Atlantic. Water temps are still warm enough to support development but we’re getting to the time of year when we can expect to see more of a hybrid look to storms like this where the winds are spread out over a larger area instead of the classic tropical storm look. We’ll see what happens but so far, there are no indications that this system would pose a direct threat to the Southeast coast outside of additional swells and rough seas that it may kick up.

Beyond that, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are free and clear of any organized disturbances that bear watching for now. However, there are indications that towards the end of the month and in to early November we may see an enhancement of the Madden-Julian Oscillation or MJO. This is a period of favorable upward motion that allows the air in the upper levels of the atmosphere to spread out or diverge, allowing thunderstorms to blossom underneath. With the very warm western Caribbean waters still waiting to be tapped, it is possible that we will see yet another area of interest pop up sometime beyond the next week to ten days. It is not that uncommon to see late season development in the western Caribbean and with a possible favorable MJO pattern, this year may be slightly more active than we’ve seen as of late once we get in to late month and early November.

I will go over everything in more detail during my video discussion which will be posted later this afternoon.

M. Sudduth 8:40 AM ET Oct 17


River flooding continues in NC, Nicole likely to pass close to Bermuda and western Caribbean becomes area of interest soon

We are getting close to mid-October and the tropics are still very much a major topic of conversation. The aftermath of Matthew from Haiti and Cuba through the Bahamas and in to the Southeast U.S. is the top story outside of the political craziness that has dominated the news cycles for most of the year.

Right now, the clean up process has begun and unfortunately, so have the plans for saying goodbye to those killed in the hurricane. Last I heard from news sources, at least 23 people have died in the United States with hundreds more lives lost in Haiti. This saddens me but it also underscores the need for better hurricane preparedness across the Western Hemisphere. We have so much technology, so much information, yet we still lose people in ways that should not ever happen. I will re-visit this grim topic at a later date and offer some suggestions for doing better in the future.

Hydrograph for Kinstron, NC along the Neuse River showing the slow rise of the river to near record flood stage by Friday.

Hydrograph for Kinstron, NC along the Neuse River showing the slow rise of the river to near record flood stage by Friday.

In eastern North Carolina, the river flood situation continues. Parts of I-40 and I-95 remain closed as flood waters are slow to recede. In places such as Kinston, along highway 70, the flood has only just begun and will not peak until Friday. Other locations are also experiencing record to near-record flooding even as skies are clear and temps are finally fall-like.

I am going to head to Kinston on Thursday to place one or two unmanned cams to monitor the rising water in real time. I will share the link here and on social media so that residents who need to evacuate can still see what is going on in their town. I’ll have more on this tomorrow.

Meanwhile, tropical storm Nicole is slowly gathering strength south of Bermuda and is expected to become a hurricane again before passing very close to the island on Thursday. A hurricane watch and tropical storm warning has been posted for Bermuda in anticipation of this event. It looks as though Nicole could be nearing category two intensity and as such, residents in Bermuda need to be ready for yet another hurricane over the coming days.

GFS model at day-5 showing the first signs of weak vorticity or spin in the lower levels of the atmosphere over the western Caribbea Sea.

GFS model at day-5 showing the first signs of weak vorticity or spin in the lower levels of the atmosphere over the western Caribbean Sea.

Once Nicole clears the pattern later this week, we will need to begin watching the western Caribbean for one last development cycle. All of the major global models are suggesting a large, sprawling area of low pressure will develop between days five and ten. Different models have different solutions for what happens after that so it’s best to just wait and see. For now, know that the western Caribbean is favored this time of year and, perhaps more importantly, the water temps in the region are as warm is it gets right now. Upper ocean heat content is nearly off the chart warm – so any disturbance that gets going in the region will more than enough fuel to become a powerful hurricane. This is an area we will need to monitor very closely as we get in to the weekend and early next week.

I will have my daily video discussion posted later this afternoon covering the latest river flooding info for eastern NC, Nicole and the western Caribbean potential for next week.

M. Sudduth 9:10 AM ET Oct 11


Inland flooding from Matthew continues as Nicole takes aim on Bermuda

Flooding along the Neuse River in Smithfield as seen from one of our unmanned camera units placed there yesterday afternoon. Watch the LIVE cam here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/C6kGCZ3uJCF

Flooding along the Neuse River in Smithfield as seen from one of our unmanned camera units placed there yesterday afternoon. Watch the LIVE cam here: Smithfield, NC along Neuse River

Matthew is gone, part of hurricane history now but its impacts will linger for days, weeks and even years across many locations of the Southeast. As bad as it was, I cannot emphasize enough how close the United States came to seeing catastrophic damage and likely significant loss of life. Matthew managed to keep the core of the strongest winds just offshore of the Florida and Georgia coastlines and was weakening as it did so. Just a 20-30 mile westerly change in its course would have resulted in massive wind damage, a storm surge like we have not seen since Sandy and maybe even Katrina and power outages that would have boggled the mind. To say we were lucky is putting it mildly but what did happen is bad enough and we are dealing with the effects even as skies have cleared and cooler temperatures have moved in.

The most serious threat from Matthew’s relentless rain will be continued river flooding across parts of eastern North Carolina and northeast South Carolina. Several river gauge sites are in major flood stage with more expected to reach that point in the days ahead. Visit the link below to view gauge data and learn more about the expected impacts from the various river systems that are expected to flood as the week progresses:

Southeast River Forecast Center Website

Latest track map for Nicole indicating a threat to Bermuda late week.

Latest track map for Nicole indicating a threat to Bermuda late week.

The next area of concern will be Bermuda as tropical storm Nicole gathers strength in the wake of hurricane Matthew. Upper level winds are forecast to become favorable and this will allow Nicole to become a hurricane again, probably a category two, as it approaches Bermuda late in the week. It’s still too soon to predict just how close Nicole will track to Bermuda but the models are in fairly good agreement on quite a close call, if not a direct hit, by Friday. I will be keeping a close eye on this and may be planning a trip to Bermuda to cover the impacts if in fact Nicole gets close enough to the island.

Beyond Nicole there are no other areas to worry about for the time being but a robust MJO pulse is forecast by the major global models to set up in the Atlantic Basin over the next two weeks or so. This would favor widespread upward motion and period of favorable upper level winds – mainly across the western Caribbean where climatology tells us to look this time of year. As a result, the GFS and ECMWF models both suggest development between seven and ten days out. Something to watch for but nothing appears imminent.

I am back in the office now in Wilmington, NC after quite a saga tracking down Matthew from the east-central coast of Florida and then up through the Carolinas. I covered a lot of ground and captured some useful wind and pressure data along with compelling live video from our unmanned cams. I will post some of the data soon along with video highlights of the field mission.

I’ll have a video discussion posted early this afternoon followed by a blog update this evening concerning Nicole and what the latest trends are regarding impacts for Bermuda.

M. Sudduth 8:15 AM ET Oct 10