Hurricane unprepared: we don’t prepare for what we don’t understand

Hurricane Hugo in 1989

Hurricane Hugo in 1989

It is that time of year again. We start hearing more and more about the upcoming hurricane season. News articles are released highlighting the potential for the season: will it be quiet or busy? What does that even mean? Most people have no idea.

Soon, the TV hurricane specials will air, printed hurricane guides will grace the check-out lanes at your local grocery store or big box retailer. All of this material is intended to help get you prepared for the season ahead. Unfortunately, none of the material can give you what you really need and that is experience and thus understanding. This is why, in my opinion, most people do not prepare adequately – they simply have no hurricane motivation; they have not been in one previously to fully understand the ramifications of not preparing for the next one.

Experience is our best teacher. This is proven time and again in just about anything we deal with in life. The more we experience something, the better we are at dealing with it in most cases.

Think about Florida for a moment. It has been over eight years since any hurricane what so ever has directly impacted the state. The last one was Wilma in late October of 2005. Anyone born in the state since then has zero hurricane experience. Anyone who moved to Florida since 2005 likely has zero hurricane experience. So why would we expect these people to prepare in such a way as to deem them “hurricane prepared”? They have little to no idea what it’s like and thus no measuring stick to gauge their own risk. Television meteorologists and printed hurricane guides can show mountains of video, computer graphics and more to drive the point home but I believe the lack of preparedness is directly related to the lack of true understanding of what hurricanes are all about.

While education is very helpful, I think that the vast majority of coastal dwellers will not fully grasp the risks they face when dealing with hurricanes unless they have been in one, especially a high-impact event like Katrina or Andrew. This makes perfect sense. People in coastal Mississippi who have lived there for a while know hurricanes and they prepare for them. On the other hand, how many people in New Jersey or New York really understood what was about to happen when Sandy was approaching? Time and time again we heard the reports of how surprised people were in the wake of Sandy. It’s all based on experience. This is not difficult to figure out. And so I cannot really find fault with people who do not prepare to the extent that we hope they would. What motivation do they have to prepare for something that they don’t truly understand? Very little….until it happens to them.

As we inch ever closer to June 1 and the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season, I offer this advice for people who live in harm’s way. Talk to those who have been through a hurricane – especially a significant hurricane. Ask them what it was like, not just the effects but the stress of dealing with everything before, during and after. Perhaps some of their experience can translate to you and give you just enough motivation to do something, anything, to lessen the effects of the next hurricane on you and your family. History is a great learning tool and America’s hurricane history is profoundly rich with stories from legendary hurricanes of the past. Read about them and then try to project those scenarios on your life. Can you handle a modern day Galveston 1900 storm? What about a Camille? Andrew? Hugo? Those events really happened and although they are in the past, they all have the ability to transcend time to teach us something.

I worry about how long we have gone without a true intense hurricane impacting the United States. Are we ready to deal with plucking people from rooftops? Do we have enough supplies to feed and shelter potentially tens of thousands of people left homeless by the next Andrew or Katrina? Are local, state and federal officials prepared? How much hurricane experience do they have? It’s been a while folks and even though we would rather go forever without there being another hurricane landfall, we know that won’t happen. The hurricane clock is ticking, even if it does so in silence. None of us knows when the alarm will sound and I assure you, there is no snooze button. Take it from me, you had best do what you can to try and understand hurricanes and their hazards now, before one comes knocking on your door.

Hurricane season begins June 1. National Hurricane Preparedness Week kicks off May 25. Use that time to learn about hurricanes, know their history, know their impacts. As the classic G.I. Joe saying goes, “Knowing is half the battle”.

M. Sudduth 8:15 AM May 1

The bad side to a good hurricane season

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season is officially over. The season ended with 13 named storms, two of which became hurricanes. There were no category two or three hurricanes this year – something that is extremely rare to have happen. While there will be plenty of speculation as to what “went wrong”, the bottom line is that, for millions of coastal dwellers, especially in the United States, the 2013 hurricane season was about as tame as they get. According to the official report from the National Hurricane Center, tropical storm Andrea caused around $25 million in damage and resulted in one death from rough surf in South Carolina. Otherwise, the season was a non-event.

Before we go and celebrate too much, let’s consider the longer term implications of what’s been going on the last several years.

Florida has not had a single hurricane landfall since Wilma in 2005. A child who was in the 6th grade during Wilma would now be a sophomore in college. Every child who was born in Florida since Wilma (and still lives there) has never experienced a hurricane of any magnitude. That is simply astounding and honestly, a huge problem. We’re talking millions of people who have zero hurricane experience. And this is just Florida.

For the United States as a whole, the time between major hurricane landfalls, hurricanes that are of category three or higher, is now more than eight years. While there is a case to be made that Ike in 2008 was a “major event” and Sandy as well last year, those hurricanes were not intense, well developed, category three or higher. Think about that for a moment. As bad as Sandy was, affecting as much coastline as it did, it was only a category one as it approached New Jersey. Obviously, Sandy was an extraordinary event, especially considering the amount of coastline it impacted. However, it is not without precedent to have large, fully tropical, intense hurricanes making landfall in the Northeast. They are not common but they do happen. Sandy was not anything close to a worse case scenario and yet it is the second costliest hurricane disaster in U.S. history.

My point is that yes, it is great to have a free pass once in a while. What worries me is the extended amount of time that the U.S. is going without dealing with a significant hurricane landfall. Practice makes perfect, or so they say, but with no hurricanes of any magnitude to practice with, how can we expect to be fully prepared?

I can see it now. Budgets will be cut for hurricane awareness, mitigation and preparation. The rationale will be “we haven’t had a hurricane so why bother?” The good ole out of sight, out of mind principle. It will happen and it will weaken the response effort, I can assure you. That is what I am worried about. The longer we go without a hurricane, especially a major hurricane, the worse it will likely be when it does happen. Why do I think this is the likely outcome? Let’s look at one event: Katrina.

Katrina whacked Florida first and then the central Gulf Coast. It was the sixth major hurricane to strike the United States in less than two years. Yes, that’s right, the SIXTH! In 2004 we had: Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Then, in 2005, Dennis struck the Florida panhandle as a category three in July. Katrina was a little more than a month later. We had five previous major hurricanes to “practice” with and still got it totally wrong with Katrina. One would have thought that by the time Katrina was taking aim on New Orleans and the Mississippi coast that it would be a no-brainer and every possible measure would have been taken to mitigate loss of life and damage to property. History tells the rest of that story quite well.

Logic would then dictate that if we cannot get it right after five back-to-back events, then how on earth will we have a chance to get it right when nothing at all (no major hurricanes) has happened since before the iPad was invented?

I worry. I really do. I have people ask me all the time about where all the hurricanes have gone. I don’t have solid answers. I tell them to at least keep a watch out and not let their guard down. It’s hard to keep banging a drum when no one has a reason to even listen. One does not want to become annoying with the drum-banging either so it’s a fine line that has to be straddled. We know it is only a matter of time until the hurricanes return. When they do, will we as a nation be ready or will we have forgotten the images of people on roof tops, people dead in the streets, people calling for heads to roll high up the political chain of command?

It is thus critically important, more now than anytime since 2005, to keep hurricanes on the front burner. Let’s not cut out education and awareness programs. Keep the funding for research and forecasting improvements. Hurricanes are not extinct. We’ve had some incredible luck these past eight years. We need only to look at what took place in the Philippines to give us a glimpse of how bad it can get. Consider too that they have the most tropical cyclone experience of any land mass on the planet.

The season may be over but hurricanes have not gone extinct. Now is not the time to turn our backs on the inevitable fact that one day, perhaps in 2014, perhaps longer, another powerful storm will go down in history – I just hope it’s for all the right reasons. We know all the wrong ones, let’s see if we remember.

I’ll have plenty of off-season info on a regular basis. This includes winter storm coverage for East Coast events and severe weather outbreaks. The blog will be updated from time to time and of course, this includes our app for iPhone and Android devices. Thanks for relying on us for hurricane news and info again this year. We’re working on some new and innovative technology for our field program and can’t wait to unveil it next spring. When the hurricanes do come back, we’ll be more capable and ready than ever before. Have a wonderful Christmas and be safe! We want you back in 2014!

M. Sudduth 8:55 am ET December 2

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.