Eleven years since last major hurricane landfall and why it matters

Hurricane Matthew with the eye just off the coast of Florida - Oct 7, 2016

Hurricane Matthew with the eye just off the coast of Florida – Oct 7, 2016

A major hurricane is defined as one that has winds of 115 miles per hour or higher, also known as a category three or higher. The last hurricane to meet that critical standard while making it ashore along the U.S. coastline did so eleven years ago today. We all know the story by now – it was the 21st named storm of the historic 2005 season and its name was Wilma. Nothing matching the wind speed of Wilma has made landfall since. Why is so much made of this seemingly important record?

First of all, historically speaking, major hurricanes cause about 80% of the damage from all hurricanes striking the United States. It stands to reason that the stronger the hurricane, the more damage it will cause. We rank hurricanes based on their wind speed and nothing else. The Saffir-Simpson scale was developed in the early 1970s for the purpose of understanding what a hurricane’s winds were capable of.. Since then, it has undergone unofficial changes that led the public, and the media, to believe that storm surge and air pressure were part of the original intent of the scale. This was wrong and still is today. The categories of hurricanes that we know as being 1-5 have nothing to do with storm surge, pressure or rain fall. As such, the term “major hurricane” refers to a category three or higher hurricane based on wind speed and wind speed alone.

Major hurricane landfalls in the U.S. are rare. We have seen periods of several years go by without any major hurricane landfalls. It takes the right set of atmospheric and oceanic conditions to get a major hurricane to form in the first place let alone allow it to maintain itself all the way to landfall. However, when it does happen, the damage is usually immense in scale.

Some years, like 2004 and 2005, a rash of major hurricanes make landfall. In fact, beginning with Charley on August 13, 2004 and ending with Wilma on October 24, 2005, a total of seven major hurricanes hit the U.S. This is almost (if not more) incredible than the current record of ZERO major hurricanes hitting the U.S. How could the variability be so extreme? Seven in what amounts to really a little over a year’s time to nothing in over eleven years? Most say it’s just dumb luck. In the grand scheme of geologic time, 11 years is nothing. It’s like playing roulette. You can bet red over and over and over and never hit it. Then, for reasons unknown, red comes up seven times in a row. Pure chance. Now, the weather does not work quite like that but luck has in fact been on our side….or has it?

I am not alone in making the argument that the lack of so-called major hurricanes has spared us from disaster. Let’s take a look at the hurricanes that have managed to reach the U.S. since that fateful day eleven years ago:

  1. 2008 – Gustav and Ike – both responsible for tens of billions in damage and numerous deaths
  2. 2011 – Irene – another costly hurricane that affected areas from North Carolina to New York and even parts of New England
  3. 2012 Isaac and Sandy – combined, the two “category one” hurricanes made 2012 one of the costliest and deadliest hurricane seasons in years
  4. 2016 РHermine and Matthew Рagain, two low-end hurricanes that wreaked havoc on Florida and the Carolinas with Matthew being one of the deadliest hurricanes in over four years while coming dangerously close to being an absolute catastrophe  for parts of the east-central coast of Florida

What do all of these hurricanes have in common? Water. A majority of the damage and most of the deaths were the result of water – mostly storm surge. In the case of Matthew, it was excessive rain that once again led to historic flooding and loss of life due to people driving vehicles in to flooded areas.

The dollar amount for all of these hurricanes is simply staggering. We’re talking over $100 billion in combined damage, probably more when considering the long-term economic toll on the regions that were impacted. None were “major hurricanes”. Something has to change because what on earth are we going to do when a “real” major hurricane shows up again?

I wrote in a blog post several months back about the lack of hurricane activity being analogous to having a lowered immune system. We know that hurricanes have not become extinct. Matthew was a grim reminder of that fact. So many people say they had no idea of what was coming in terms of the flooding. How can this be? I’ll tell you how. Here’s another stat for you: 17 years. That’s how long it had been since the last “we had no idea the flooding would be this bad” for North Carolina. Floyd in 1999 was the last such event. Floyd was a powerful category 4 at one point with 155 mph winds that forced millions of people to evacuate across the Southeast coast. The hurricane weakened dramatically leading up to landfall and was a category two by the time it reached the NC coast. What was the primary damage and killing agent? Water. Storm surge at the coast and an overland surge of rain water for inland areas. No one would ever forget Floyd – well, not for 17 years at least. I guess 17 years is long enough to forget because, well, you know, people said Matthew took them by surprise. Ugh. Just ugh….

We need to do better. The focus on major hurricanes is out of touch with the reality that too many people now live in harm’s way; and not just along the coast, so that ALL hurricanes, and tropical storms for that matter, should be considered dangerous.

To be fair, I think the media does a great job at conveying the risks. The Weather Channel led the way on a national front when Dr. Steve Lyons first introduced the graphical impact scale showing which hazards posed the most risk for a particular event. Since then, other efforts have been made to alert the public as to what is coming and how to avoid it.

The National Hurricane Center has put in to their public advisories the “Hazards Affecting Land” section. This is the equivalent of spelling it out for everyone in harm’s way – I use it to plan my attack with the equipment that I set up. Why don’t more people know about this?

At the end of the day, people focus on the scale Рthe scale that was invented by two brilliant people for one purpose and one purpose alone: wind damage potential. With the exception of Andrew in 1992, wind has been the least of our problems. Building codes have helped in the decades since Andrew but nothing is being done on a grand scale to combat the issue water.  We can and must do better with our education and awareness programs.

It is time to focus on the entire package. Hurricanes bring with them four main weapons, not just wind. More attention needs to be placed on storm surge and rain fall. Perhaps a new, modern rating system for tropical storms and hurricanes would help. Might I suggest that we take the hazard with the highest potential for damage and loss of life and use it to rank the hurricane. Example would be Ike. We knew it had a lethal, 20 feet plus storm surge coming with it. That’s a category five in my book. Don’t think so? Look at the damage on Bolivar peninsula and elsewhere. Homes swept clean. Cat-5 which means EVERYBODY LEAVES. As it was, Ike teetered around being a category one and two right up until landfall. So many people I talk to say, “When it reaches a three, I pay attention and plan to leave”. This is not good on so many levels.

As for rain? Same thing. The tools are there to know ahead of time that a tropical cyclone will bring enough rain to a region to cause life-threatening flooding. We already see those very words mentioned in official NWS/NHC products. To this I say give it a rank. If it is life-threatening, it is at least a category three, maybe higher. Assign the ranking based on the single biggest risk factor. In the case of future Katrina and Andrew situations, they are a five no mater what and remain a five until after landfall.

These are just ideas based on my 21 years of seeing it all go down in the field. I have been there and have seen the results in person. So many people tell me that they had no idea it would be so bad and in almost every situation they were talking about a category one or two hurricane.

Wilma was the last major hurricane to hit the USA. Perhaps it can be the last time we refer to a hurricane as being major based on wind speed alone. I applaud the weather community, the media and the NWS/NHC for doing all they can to convey risk. More needs to be done to re-wire the collective thought process so that ALL hurricanes are thought of as potential killers, no matter their ranking.

Something to ponder as we move beyond the eleven year mark since Wilma. Will 2017 give us another chance to get it right? Or at least do way better? I guess we will find out soon enough.

M. Sudduth 9:10 AM ET Oct 24

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NHC outlining two areas to watch over the coming days

NHC map showing two areas to watch over the coming days

NHC map showing two areas to watch over the coming days

While the deep tropics remain quiet with no sign of development anytime soon, we do have a couple of areas to monitor farther west, and closer to land.

The first is a disturbance or weak surface trough situated in the northeast Gulf of Mexico. It is nearly stationary for the time being and could form a low pressure area within the next couple of days. However, the main issue here will be the very heavy rain that is forecast by several of the computer models. In some cases, rain could be excessive, especially for portions of Florida, southern Georgia and Alabama as the low pressure area just mills around in the region.

I do not see much chance of this becoming a tropical storm and so wind won’t be a factor but the rain is sure to be. If you live in the area or plan to travel to or through, be advised that the potential exists for flooding rain which will make travel difficult. It is impossible to know precisely which areas will receive the heaviest rain but widespread areas of several inches seems likely for parts of the Florida panhandle and along portions of the western peninsula.

Meanwhile, what was once invest area 96L is back again with convection beginning to develop in an area north of the Leeward Islands.

The NHC indicates only a 20% chance of development over the next few days as it tracks generally west-northwest and eventually turns more north with time.

Several global models develop this system once it gets in to the southwest Atlantic. How strong and how far west remains to be seen but it looks like we just might have something coming together off the Southeast coast sometime next week. It certainly bears watching and it probably won’t be too long until it gets termed as an “invest” once again. At that point, we will begin to see more computer models run on the system and have a better idea of where it will go and what the intensity looks like. Until then, it’s just a vigorous tropical wave that looks to slowly organize.

In the east Pacific, an area of showers and thunderstorms near the coast of Mexico, not far from Manzanillo, will move northwest and merge with the remnants of what was once hurricane Earl in the western Caribbean and Bay of Campeche. The system is expected to develop and track northward towards the Baja peninsula, probably as a tropical storm. Interests in the area should be monitoring closely over the coming days.

I will have a video discussion of all the goings on in the tropics posted later this afternoon followed by another blog post tomorrow morning.

M. Sudduth 10:45 AM ET Aug 6

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Bonnie leaving, now we turn attention to the Gulf of Mexico

Tropical depression Bonnie well off the NC coast this morning, finally moving away

Tropical depression Bonnie well off the NC coast this morning, finally moving away

After hanging around the Carolina coast for several days, the year’s second named storm is finally moving on. Tropical depression Bonnie is far enough off the North Carolina coast to finally have taken the rain with it. This trend will continue and eventually, the system will become absorbed within a larger weather pattern and that will be that – no more issues from Bonnie.

In the east Pacific, invest area 91-E is struggling a bit as of late with limited convection associated with it. As such, the NHC has lowered the chance for further development to 60% over the next five days. The system remains well to the southwest of Mexico and there are no indications that it will be turning back towards land even if it does manage to develop.

Now we turn our attention to the Gulf of Mexico where it is possible that we will have to deal with a broad low pressure area that is forecast to take shape over the coming days.

Computer models are in generally good agreement that energy arriving from the Caribbean Sea will gradually consolidate around the Yucatan peninsula this weekend, eventually making its way in to the southern Gulf of Mexico where it could become a tropical storm.

GFS computer model output showing weak low pressure in the Gulf of Mexico early next week. Notice how almost all of the "heavy weather" is located on the east side of the low, a sign of a generally disogranied, sheared system

GFS computer model output showing weak low pressure in the Gulf of Mexico early next week. Notice how almost all of the “heavy weather” is located on the east side of the low, a sign of a generally disorganized, sheared system

Before folks get too worried about this, let me say that this is not something that appears to be a big wind and surge issue, if it forms at all. What does concern me is the chance for heavy rain for parts of the Florida peninsula next week. As we have seen in Texas with the continued bombardment of rain there, freshwater flooding is a big deal, even coming from so-called “weak” or “lopsided” tropical storms. Even though nothing like that has affected Texas so far this year, rain is rain and the resulting flooding can be devastating and dangerous.

Taking a look at the latest GFS computer model, we can clearly see the overall disorganized look to this potential system at around the 96 hour mark. The low pressure center hangs back over the Gulf while most of the rain and any wind would be located on the east side. This is very typical of June tropical storms due to the fact that upper level winds are still strong across the region, pushing the system faster than it can line up vertically and become better organized, such as what we would see in a hurricane. In this case, even though water temperatures are warm enough for a hurricane, the pattern does not look anywhere near conducive enough for that to take place.

Right now, the NHC is giving the future disturbance a 50% chance of developing. We’ll see if this goes up over the coming days, which I suspect it might. However, what could end up happening is that we just see a broad, strung out low pressure area develop, almost like a frontal wave instead of a true tropical storm, and head towards Florida with plenty of rain.

Elsewhere in the tropics, nothing of concern brewing and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I’ll have an in-depth look at everything I mentioned in this post during my daily video discussion which will be posted later this afternoon.

M. Sudduth 7:10 AM ET June 3

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Weak low pressure in northeast Gulf of Mexico bringing rain to FL but nothing more

Weak low pressure in the Gulf is producing rain for Florida but little else in the way of development is expected

Weak low pressure in the Gulf is producing rain for Florida but little else in the way of development is expected

The tropics are fairly quiet as we start the week. About the only area worth watching as of now is a weak low pressure and associated surface trough draped across portions of the northeast Gulf of Mexico.

There was concern late last week that we could see tropical development from this stalled out frontal boundary but it looks as though that won’t happen now. However, very heavy rain has been falling across portions of the Florida peninsula in recent days, causing flooding with the risk of more to come. Computer models generally agree that the low will move over Florida as the week progresses and as such, the chance for widespread rain, heavy at times, will be part of the forecast for the region.

Why won’t this develop in to a tropical storm?

Strong northeast flow in the upper levels of the atmosphere will likely keep the low from developing further

Strong northeast flow in the upper levels of the atmosphere will likely keep the low from developing further

Normally, low pressure sitting over water temperatures that are in the upper 80s would be cause for alarm. While the heavy rain threat is enough of a problem, it looks as though that will be the only issue Floridians face with this system. So why won’t it develop in to a tropical depression or a tropical storm? The biggest reason are the upper level winds. Right now, they are blowing over the top of the low from the northeast, pushing the deep thunderstorms or convection away from the low center itself. This does not allow the low to strengthen by way of convection wrapping around itself, allowing pressures to drop and the process to get going.

There might be a small window for the low to become better organized but the forecast from computer models indicates that the strong northeast flow across the region will continue.

The bottom line for interests in Florida, especially the central peninsula and points south to an extent, is that heavy rain is possible over the next couple of days as the low moves across. If you have travel plans, leave extra time for that and slow down during the downpours – tropical showers can be very heavy with blinding rain. Also be aware of any flooding that may take place and keep kids away from swollen ditches, creeks and rivers – remember, water is not the only danger when we’re talking about Florida and flooding.

As for the rest of the tropics? The Atlantic is mostly dead right now with a pattern in place that does not promote upward motion in the atmosphere. I do not see this changing anytime soon and so we will likely end July without any hurricanes to worry about.

In the eastern Pacific, there are two low pressure areas to monitor far from land over open water. None of the computer model guidance suggests that either will become a hurricane nor will they impact land anytime soon.

That’s about it for this Monday. I’ll have a special blog post later this week concerning our new generation of storm surge camera systems and how we plan to utilize them when the next hurricane makes landfall along the U.S. coast.

M. Sudduth 12:10 PM ET July 27

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Big time rains for the southern states

HPC 5-Day QPF

HPC 5-Day QPF

Get ready for some rain! If you live in eastern Texas, Arkansas and indeed a good deal of the Deep South, you’re in for some wet weather over the next five days. Take a look at the HPC QPF map. It shows the forecast precip over the next five days and a lot of it! The culprit? A potent upper level storm system now situated over southern Arizona and moving in to New Mexico. It will tap the warmer-than-normal Gulf of Mexico moisture supply and really ignite as we continue to move through the week.

While rainy, nasty weather is usually not a welcome event, in this case, I think people will be pleased to see it because of the drought relief it will bring.

U.S. Drought Monitor Map- Sept. 13, 2011

U.S. Drought Monitor Map- Sept. 13, 2011

The last few years have been exceptionally dry for the southern Plains and especially Texas. Looking at the U.S. Drought Monitor maps we can see that at the peak of last year’s hurricane season (Sept. 13 map), nearly the entire state of Texas was experiencing exceptional drought conditions. I have little doubt that this was the reason why TS Don literally dried up as it made landfall in south Texas in July. In fact, the air mass over the western Gulf remained very dry for a bulk of the hurricane season. When TS Lee formed in early September, it too entrained the bone-dry air over the region and actually transformed in to a sub-tropical storm, losing its purely tropical characteristics. I call this phenomenon the Texas Air Layer, similar to the Saharan Air Layer which can dominate the tropical Atlantic with dry, stable air.

Now let’s fast forward to the current winter pattern. We have seen quite an increase in rain fall over a significant portion of Texas and surrounding states due to a favorable storm track and possibly a warmer than normal Gulf of Mexico which supplies more moisture for storm systems. It has also been warmer than normal for the region as it has been for much of the Southeast. This is partly due to a positive NAO or North Atlantic Oscillation which has kept the deep east coast troughs which usher in Arctic Air at bay. Instead of prolonged periods of cold, dry air, the Arctic attacks are brief and the result has been a warmer, wetter winter for much of the southern tier states.

U.S. Drought Monitor Map- Jan. 17, 2012

U.S. Drought Monitor Map- Jan. 17, 2012

You can see the resulting improvements on the latest Drought Monitor map labeled January 17. A remarkable change to say the least and more rain is coming which will further knock down the dry conditions for Texas and elsewhere.

My theory is that if this pattern continues, perhaps the air mass over the southern U.S. and adjacent Gulf Waters won’t be as dry this hurricane season. If this is the case, maybe, just maybe it would open up the western Gulf, Texas included, to more tropical cyclone activity. It makes sense to some extent: if the abnormally dry air mass is gone, due in part to a wetter land mass underneath, then it stands to reason that approaching tropical cyclones won’t dry out nearly as much as we saw in 2011. I think we can all agree that watching Don erode away to nothing as it made landfall was one of most incredible demises to a tropical storm that we’ve ever witnessed. It provided next to no rain fall for the region that it impacted and was all but gone in less than 24 hours after landfall.

We’ll see how this all plays out for the upcoming hurricane season. It may have no bearing at all but I think that drought begets drought and thus more dry air; a kind of feedback mechanism. We know that tropical cyclones are incredibly sensitive to dry air and what we saw over the western Gulf last season was enough to keep the region well protected. I’ll keep tabs on the Drought Index and post a follow up report in the early part of June. For now, enjoy the abundance of rain fall but be mindful of the hazards that excessive rains can bring. It’s all good until somebody gets hurt and we don’t want that.

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