Even as Debby continues to dump rain across portions of northern Florida today, there is a lesson to be learned from the event. That lesson is to understand that tropical storms and hurricanes have multiple weapons that can cause problems. It’s not just the big headline making wind and surge machines such as Katrina, Ike or Camille. Even a weak tropical storm, like Debby is now, can create huge disruptions in the lives of those who are in the path.
Let’s take a look back at TS Allison in 2001. It formed in June and moved up out of the western Gulf of Mexico and settled in over Houston, Texas. The result was around $5 billion in damage due to the 40+ inches of rain that fell across the region. Allison is the only tropical storm to have its name retired from the 6 year list of names. Yet, for Allison, there was no mass evacuation like we saw ahead of category 5 Rita in 2005 or category 2 Ike in 2008. People usually do not flee a 60 mph tropical storm. Instead, the millions of people who live in and around Houston were treated to days of torturous rain and flooding. It was an epic nightmare and one that will never be forgotten.
Tropical cyclones produce heavy rain as a means to disperse the heat that builds up in the tropics. It’s that simple. As I mentioned in a previous post, that rain is a function of the storm’s heat engine doing its thing. It’s just unfortunate that us humans happen to live where these rains can pose serious issues for us.
Debby has dumped in excess of 20 inches of rain over parts of the Florida Panhandle. Sink holes are opening up, parts of I-10 are closed due to flooding and life for many people is simply miserable today. Yet, this was no hurricane. It did not have the “scary” 130 mph winds that would get a lot of attention. It did not push a 20 foot storm surge towards the coast. Yet what Debby has done still managed to cause a lot of grief for a lot of people. There’s no avoiding it, you can’t move your house out of the way of the relentless rain. Evacuating is only necessary if flood waters get too high. So what can be done?
My point is that people all along the coast and then a couple of hundred miles inland need to realize that tropical cyclones are more than just wind and surge producers. First and foremost they are rain makers. Too much water in too little time always equals problems. And, as we have seen time and again, too much rain over a long period of time is just as bad. So as we progress through the hurricane season, remember that all tropical cyclones are capable of inflicting damage and causing loss of life. The degree to which the various effects manifest themselves depends on many variables. This is why it is important to not focus on the hype of “a hurricane might be coming” but rather think of it as “there is a dangerous weather event that could possibly change my life forever”. Then, prepare accordingly.
As for the future of Debby? It should cross Florida in the coming days and finally move faster out in to the open waters of the Atlantic. Let’s hope it does as Debby has more than left its mark on Florida.