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

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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

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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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