The United States hurricane problem: perhaps it is just too big?

In the wake of hurricane Sandy there has been a constant stream of news regarding how ill prepared the affected areas were to deal with the event. Why am I not surprised? Sandy was an enormous storm. It affected people from Florida to Canada to Michigan. I think Sandy, like Katrina before it and Ike after that, sheds light on an area that we need to perhaps come to grips with. We have a serious hurricane problem and it may now be too big to wrangle.

While there certainly could have been more done to ease the situation, there always is, I am not sure what could have been done to make things markedly better after Sandy hit. Aside from putting almost all of our efforts in to hurricane mitigation and education, what else can we do? We know hurricanes are a threat. They offer the most lead time of any major weather disaster and yet we repeat the same mistakes over and over. Maybe they are not mistakes but rather a symptom; a symptom that our problem is now beyond our grasp.

During the 70s and 80s a tremendous amount of coastal building took place. People flocked to the water’s edge and lived their dream life without many hurricanes at all. Then, in 1995, just when the latest economic bubble that burst began inflating, hurricanes became a real problem again. Yet, luck was mostly on our side as most of the nasty hurricanes remained well out to sea, year after year. The luck ran out temporarily in 2004 and big time in 2005. Since then, we have not had a single category three hurricane to strike the U.S. coast. Yet, Sandy, which was not technically a hurricane at landfall, will likely have the largest cost of any storm event in our history. Further more, Sandy did not bring worst case conditions to places like New York City. What we had was a massive event, affecting people across almost a third of the U.S. and look what happened. It overwhelmed the response system. It won’t be the last time either.

Let’s look at Florida. Not a single hurricane of any strength has made landfall in Florida since October of 2005. You talk about a problem waiting to rear its ugly head. Can you imagine the millions of people who have moved to Florida since 2005 who have ZERO hurricane experience? Even though Florida is expected to be hit year after year, no hurricanes have made landfall there in seven years.

Let’s hypothesize for a minute that a large, classic Cape Verde hurricane comes rolling through around West Palm Beach next August. Winds around the eye are blowing at 125 mph – a category three. Do you think for one minute that the response to that disaster will be swift and made to look easy? I can assure you it will overwhelm (there’s that word again) the Sunshine State and tax the surrounding states who send assistance and aid. Why? Because millions of people will be affected across a densely populated area. There is no way that anyone can adequately prepare for something so large and devastating.

Then, after the landfall shock wears off, people will start pointing fingers at each other for lack of response, lack of preparedness and lack of aid.

Let’s look at a completely different scenario that actually happened.

In 1999, hurricane Bret made landfall in Kenedy county, Texas as a category three hurricane. It was a beast, a powerful, well developed Gulf of Mexico hurricane. Total damage was around $30 million. There were no deaths reported. Why is this? Because hardly anyone lives where Bret made landfall. This same type of hurricane striking West Palm Beach would have a completely different outcome. An even larger, more powerful hurricane would amplify matters to the extreme.

As I read blog after blog about Sandy and how warnings of just such an event went unheeded, I can begin to see the real problem. Sandy was more than anyone could handle. We do not live in a world where $30 billion is spent before hand to beef up our infrastructure. Instead, we live in a world that responds with what funding there is when the infrastructure is taken out. I’ve seen it first hand time and time again and the result is always the same: there is never a good outcome to a hurricane disaster.

Yes, progress has been made in areas that were hit by hurricanes such as Katrina and Ike but for the most part, life goes on as if there are no such things as hurricanes. We try to build back bigger and better but Nature always finds a way to knock progress down again, one way or another.

Trying to blame Sandy’s devastation on one or two people is absurd. While it would have been nice to see politicians come out and say all the right things at the right times, the outcome would not have changed much at all. Sandy impacted one of the most populated areas of coastline in America. What did everyone think was going to happen?

The U.S. hurricane problem is now bigger than ever. The good news is that severe hurricanes are extremely rare. However, when they do happen to cross our shores, significant damage is likely. Unless we are willing to implement drastic changes in to our coastal land use, events like Sandy will continue to happen and we will scratch our heads and wonder why more wasn’t done to prevent it.

Ernesto gaining organization as we usher in new tropical depression

TS Ernesto with Increasing Convection

TS Ernesto with Increasing Convection

TS Ernesto has developed rather deep convection tonight right over the center of circulation. You can plainly see this improvement in structure on various satellite imagery. The question is, will this be a temporary stay of execution before the inevitable happens and it’s ripped up or are we seeing the start of a significant intensification process? Wish I knew. This part (intensity forecasting) is the toughest aspect of tracking tropical cyclones. So many factors are at play and it is impossible for today’s computer models to grasp the totality of the complex nature of the inner core. So, we can only sit back and watch sat pics as they refresh, giving us another frame to the movie, quite literally. Of course, it helps to have recon out there as well but when none are flying, the eye in the sky, some 22,500 miles above the Earth, is how we watch these systems wax and wane. And tonight, it appears that Ernesto is on the up-tick, how long it lasts remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, out in the far eastern Atlantic, we now have tropical depression six. The NHC began advisories a little while ago and this too will have to be watched as it begins the long trek across the tropical Atlantic. There are some hurdles along its route but conditions seem to be a little more favorable than perhaps was earlier thought this year across the deep tropics and we may see quite a pattern coming up of several developments over the coming weeks.

As for 91L, the disturbance off the Florida coast, while it looks rather impressive on satellite imagery. it still lacks a well defined surface low and without that, it won’t develop much. However, these tropical disturbances can dump a lot of rain and bring gusty winds with any rain squalls that move over your area. Be aware of that this weekend across SE Florida. While there is a chance of further development, I do not see this system becoming a big problem for anyone outside of the heavy precip that is possible.

I’ll have regular updates throughout the weekend with frequent posts on Twitter and Facebook. I’ll also keep adding video blogs to the newly released HurricaneTrack iPhone app. Check it out in the App Store via the banner ad up on the top right column.

99L getting a little better organized as we round out July

A look at invest area 99L indicates that it is getting somewhat better organized today. A general increase in shower and thunderstorm activity can be seen in satellite imagery although it is still rather poorly organized.

For the most part, the global models are not very bullish on 99L developing much in the coming days. The GFS suggests some strengthening and it is possible that this system becomes a tropical storm as it moves towards progressively warmer water. There is still some dry air around, enough so to limit the deep convection needed to allow 99L to thrive and grow at a rapid pace.

The NHC’s intensity model, SHIPS, shows modest intensification but keeps 99L below hurricane intensity. Yesterday, that same model suggested that it would in fact become a hurricane.

The ECMWF model or Euro, shows very little in the way of strengthening as the system moves towards the Lesser Antilles.

The bottom line here is that it appears some slow development is possible as 99L tracks generally westward towards the Windward Islands. Interests there should be ready for at least an increase in shower and thunderstorm activity in the coming days. I would not be surprised to see 99L become a tropical storm but it would probably be fairly weak and not very organized. Once it moves in to the Caribbean Sea, conditions are generally not very favorable for continued development.

Elsewhere, another tropical wave is moving through the Greater Antilles islands today and will spread showers and thunderstorms across Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and eventually Cuba. None of the reliable computer models indicate that this wave will develop in the coming days. Keep in mind that tropical waves often bring periods of gusty winds and squally weather. Conditions will improve across the region by tomorrow as the wave passes on by.

Speaking of tomorrow, our app, HurricaneTrack, hits the App Store. I will have a full blog post about it and the special limited time price that we will be offering as we officially roll out version 1.0. The app will feature a daily video blog plus live weather data during hurricane and tropical storm landfalls. This version will be just the start as we plan to add more features- but that will depend on YOU to help make it a success. We will have an Android version available just as soon as possible so no worries for our Android device users, we’ve got you covered too!

Invest area 99L forms in tropical Atlantic as conditions become more favorable

The NHC is monitoring an area of low pressure well to the south and west of the Cape Verde Islands for possible development. It appears that conditions across the region are becoming more conducive for tropical cyclone formation. The dry, dusty air seen in recent weeks has significantly decreased and water temps are just warm enough to support development.

Vertical wind shear in the tropical Atlantic

Vertical wind shear in the tropical Atlantic

Looking at some of the parameters typically associated with tropical cyclone formation, we see that vertical wind shear, the difference in wind speed and direction with height in the atmosphere, is right where it should be for this time of year. In other words, shear is not a factor. It is running at about the climatological average. This should allow for a steady growth in deep tropical thunderstorms or convection. In turn, this will allow the pressures to continue to fall as the fairly large envelope of energy gradually consolidates as it moves westward.

Vertical instability in the tropical Atlantic

Vertical instability in the tropical Atlantic

On the other hand, vertical instability, which is more or less a way of saying how stable is the atmosphere. Yet another way to put it is how difficult is it to lift the air and get the vertical motion needed to create tropical convection? Right now, vertical instability is running quite a bit below the average for the tropical Atlantic. This means that we will not see rapid development of 99L. However, this is not necessarily good news. The reason? Typically, the sooner a system develops, the more chance it has to be picked up by a weakness in the subtropical ridge and track out to sea. The later the development takes place, the farther west we usually see storms and hurricanes track. So even though vertical instability is running below normal right now, it likely only means a delay in development and should not be enough to limit it completely.

Looking at the global computer models, the GFS seems to be the most consistent with development and an eventual track through the Windward Islands. The ECMWF has basically no development from this system while the Canadian CMC model seems a little too aggressive and thus has a more northerly track over the next five to six days. It during these early stages of what is called cyclogenesis that the models will waver and not be of much use. The good news is that 99L is way out in the tropical Atlantic and we will have several days to monitor its progress.

I do think that it is a good reminder that we are entering the busy months of the hurricane season. Whether or not 99L develops, August is fast approaching and the need to be ready for what the next 90 days or so brings is critical. For the next few days, folks in the Lesser Antilles should be watching 99L closely. It has a chance to develop and at least bring inclement weather to the region. How much it develops remains to be seen. It is very early in the process and much will change over the week ahead. I’ll post regular updates here and on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Keep in mind that beginning Wednesday, August 1, you will be able to purchase our brand new HurricaneTrack app for iPhone/iPod Touch (it will work on an iPad though it is not formatted for that device per se). The app will feature an in-depth daily video blog that will keep you informed through the use of graphics and narration concerning any goings on in the tropics. I’ll have a special link and blog post on Wednesday once the app is available.

Hurricanes Daniel and Emilia moving westward under strong high pressure

The east Pacific hurricane season continues to churn out the hurricanes. We now have Daniel and rapidly intensifying Emilia to track. Both systems are moving away from Mexico and out farther in to the Pacific. The reason is fairly simple: strong high pressure to the north, driving each hurricane westward due to the clock-wise flow. This is very similar to Ike in 2008 which moved generally westward from Africa all the way to Texas. It did so because strong high pressure, deeply entrenched in the atmosphere, pushed it along with no chance to turn north before landfall. Sometimes the pattern is just right and a tropical cyclone will move west for many days until it encounters land, cooler water or strong winds aloft to tear it apart.

In the case of Daniel, it will eventually feel the effects of much cooler Pacific water temps and gradually lose its punch. Folks in Hawaii should fare just fine as the remnants of Daniel track well to the south of the island chain.

Emilia will track a bit more WNW than west for a few days until it begins to weaken and be steered more by the low level easterly winds. Emilia poses no threat to land and likely never will.

In the Atlantic, all is quiet. This very typical for the first half of July when dry, stable air blasts off of Africa and in to the tropical Atlantic. I see nothing in the global computer models to suggest any development over the next week at least. So enjoy the hot weather as best you can- the hurricanes are nowhere to be found.