Some thoughts on this last day of the hurricane season

We began the season expecting “near normal” overall activity and ended it with almost record-setting activity. Even though a good deal of the development that took place did so out of the deep tropics, we still managed to have 10 hurricanes form in the Atlantic Basin this year. That is well above the 100 year average and I feel like we are quite lucky, despite the damage from Isaac and Sandy, that nothing worse happened.

A couple of interesting points. Jacksonville, Florida had an almost impossible hit from the east back in May with TS Beryl which was only five miles per hour shy of becoming a hurricane. I guess we could have seen that as a sign that the season would be unusual. Look at Sandy. It too came back at the coast instead of turning out to sea and hit New Jersey from the east – not coming in from the south paralleling the coast like Irene did last season.

In between were plenty of named storms and only one major hurricane: Michael. We had no category four hurricanes or higher this season. This surprised me since we did not get a full El Nino event, I thought for sure we would see more major hurricanes form than we did. Lucky for land areas, we did not.

HurricaneTrack.com was on site for three landfalls this season: Beryl, Isaac and Sandy. This brings my personal total number of hurricanes intercepted to at least 23 in 15 years. I was honored to work with Greg Nordstrom from Mississippi State University on a number of projects, including the extremely rare landfall of Beryl in Jacksonville and vicinity.

I also continued my work with colleague Mike Watkins during Isaac and of course, long time friend and colleague, Jesse Bass, during Sandy. We have a good team and I am proud of our collective efforts.

We tested, with near perfect results, our HURRB project in Texas and are now ready to deploy the payload in to the eye of a hurricane. We thought we might have a shot at it with Isaac but the southeast Louisiana area is not really where we want to launch or recover from. So we will wait to see what the 2013 season offers up as an opportunity to study the inside of the eye of a hurricane via weather balloon and 4 GoPro cameras. We’ll also have several GPS tracking and recording devices on board for understanding wind flow patterns and more. Needless to say, this is a project we are very excited about and look forward to talking about it more next year.

Hurricane Isaac was the first of two reminders that category is not the only thing to pay attention to when a hurricane is approaching. I thought we had learned this with Ike but I guess four years is too long and people forgot. However, the NHC had this in their public advisory headline over and over and over before Isaac made landfall:

“…ISAAC MOVING WEST-NORTHWESTWARD OVER THE EASTERN GULF OF MEXICO…POSES SIGNIFICANT STORM SURGE THREAT TO THE NORTHERN GULF COAST…”

So I am not sure where the surprise part is. It’s not like this was buried down deep within pages of some long, detailed advisory package. People need to understand that hurricanes are A) not dots on a map and B) have multiple weapons of mass destruction to use against you. The flooding from Isaac in southeast Louisiana and even along portions of the Mississippi Gulf Coast was well forecast days ahead of the event. No one should have been caught off guard. I am not sure what else can be done other than pouring millions of dollars in to hurricane education and preparedness. Hey, that’s probably not a bad idea. Sadly, once out of sight, hurricanes are out of mind and we’ll repeat this cycle again the next time.

Leslie sure gave Bermuda a scare and I almost hopped on a plane to fly out and intercept the large hurricane myself. But alas, it was not meant to be and Leslie veered east just enough to keep the worst effects away from the region.

We almost escaped the season with no additional problems until Sandy came along and spoiled things. The late-October hurricane was a beast in the Caribbean. It may very well be upgraded to the season’s second major hurricane in the post-season analysis by the NHC – we’ll see how that goes. Sandy impacted Jamaica, Haiti and eastern Cuba before lashing the Bahamas with hurricane conditions in some locations.

The beach erosion along the Florida east coast was substantial. Sandy’s large wind field churned up a substantial portion of the southwest Atlantic and it will take a while for the beaches to recover, if they ever do.

The North Carolina Outer Banks seem to be the forgotten stepchild this year. The surge effects from Sandy decimated highway 12 and eroded enormous dune fields down to nothing. Sure, this is a natural process and perhaps no one should be living out there in the first place. But they do, it’s a near pristine area despite the development and people should have a chance to enjoy the beauty of the region. It seems that this area never escapes a hurricane season without effects from either a passing hurricane like Sandy or a direct hit like Irene.

Now let’s discuss the big issue with Sandy concerning the “no hurricane warning” debate. There are two aspects I will address.

One – the public’s understanding of tropical storms and hurricanes. Again, I have to think that most people who live along the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast coastlines are aware of the threat from hurricanes. It’s not like Sandy was any surprise. The media was talking about it, there was the nick-name “Frankenstorm” as it looked like Sandy could morph in to some never-before-seen superstorm, which it in fact did. I said a week away on this site that it could be a “storm for the ages”. Others blogged about that fact too. Folks, the word was out there that a large and dangerous storm, no matter what it was structurally, was headed for the Northeast.The public knew that a dangerous storm event was headed their way, I do not know what good calling it a hurricane would have done in the end. That designation would not have stopped the massive storm surge or kept the Moon from being full that night. After all, Katrina was a nightmare, massive, powerful, lethal category five headed straight for Mississippi and Louisiana, complete with hurricane warnings and every measure of effort put in to telling people to get the bleep out. More than 1000 people still died. The entire Mississippi coast, parts of Alabama and a good deal of New Orleans still flooded from the surge/levee failures. I think it has to do with the public’s experience and what they perceive to be a threat based on that experience. Whether or not Sandy remained a tropical cyclone (hurricane) at landfall made no difference in what the outcome was in my opinion.

On the other hand, I have to point out that, according to the glossary of terms from the NHC’s website, a hurricane warning says nothing about the notion that a hurricane must be present in order for the warning to be posted. Read for yourself:

Hurricane Warning:

“An announcement that hurricane conditions (sustained winds of 74 mph or higher) are expected somewhere within the specified area. Because hurricane preparedness activities become difficult once winds reach tropical storm force, the hurricane warning is issued 36 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of tropical-storm-force winds. ”

It says, “hurricane conditions” and “expected”. It says nothing about the meteorological structure of a hurricane as having to be a prerequisite for the warning to be issued. Just going on this alone, I would have to agree that posting a hurricane warning made sense, because hurricane conditions absolutely took place “somewhere within the specified area” even though Sandy was not technically a hurricane any longer just hours before landfall.

This may have made a bigger impact on the evacuations but again, I cite Katrina. What more could the NHC, the local, state and federal agencies and the media could have done in the days prior to its landfall? Short of escorting Americans out of the danger zone at gunpoint, what else can we do?

I’ll tell you what else. Education. We tend to shy away from talking about hurricanes as being a part of our coastal history because the mere mention of their existence apparently causes people to not spend their tourism dollars and go to the beach. What kind of thinking is this? Let’s instead hide the truth about hurricanes, keep them mysterious and scary and only talk about them when one is headed our way. Yeah, that’s the better plan. Then we can watch the news and see lines of people waiting for gas, ice and food. We can watch scores of people trapped on overpasses in sweltering heat while the nation works hard to ready a response. That’s the problem. We REACT to hurricanes and do not adequately prepare for hurricanes.

Sandy will end up costing many tens of billions of dollars. Much of that money will go in to repairing the damage and, hopefully, building back better and stronger. How much will be set aside for education and preparedness? How much will be allocated to hurricane research to better understand changes in intensity and forecast track? I am going to guess almost nothing. Zero. Why? Because Sandy is gone. Hurricane season is over. Most people do not care about the next one because no one knows when or where it will be. Why spend money on it, it might not happen. Until we stop this cycle of hoping hurricanes away and then getting upset at the government when one happens, we’re doomed to keep picking up the pieces and never learning from past mistakes.

Hurricanes are not a freak of nature. We have more warning for their arrival than for any other major disaster event. We name them for Pete’s sake! What more do you want? I know what I want. Education. Let’s put forth an effort to teach people about hurricanes. Teach local governments about what to expect based on experience. Waiting until a hurricane is headed for your front door is madness.

But then again, what do I know anyway? I’m just a guy with a website who tracks hurricanes for a living. What could I possibly know about what to expect when a hurricane is coming.

Stay safe this off-season. Tune in from time to time next year. We’ve always got something innovative and unique cooking.

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About Mark Sudduth

Greetings! I am Mark Sudduth, the founder and editor of HurricaneTrack.com. The site began in 1999 as a way to post info concerning tropical storms and hurricanes for any interested visitors. Little did I know how big it would become in the years since. Now, we have millions of visitors from all over the world who have come to rely on the site as a no non-sense, tell it like it is resource for all things hurricane related. We are supported by a combination of corporate sponsors and our loyal Client Services members who subscribe to premium content on our sister site, premium.hurricanetrack.com. I am married with six energetic and intelligent children and live in southeast North Carolina. I graduated UNC-Wilmington in 1995 with a BA in Geography and have studied the effects of hurricanes on our society ever since.
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