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Hurricane season is here

  • Published
  • By Dr. James D. McFadden, Ph.D.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association
With all the recent news about tornados, floods, hailstorms and snowstorms I bet most of you are not too focused on the granddaddy of them all - hurricanes.

I know I'm not, and I should be, but we have other projects ongoing here at the National Hurricane Center, so I need to attend to those too. I manage the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's famed Hurricane Hunter program with its two WP-3D Orion and its Gulfstream G-IVSP. With the 2013 hurricane season having started June 1, it's time all of us started giving some thought to preparing for what forecasters are predicting to be a very busy year.

I know you all have heard the hype on how to best prepare for a hurricane from the news media, emergency managers and the National Hurricane Center itself. While you may think it's a good idea to fill your bathtubs with water, throw your lawn furniture in the pool, get out the party supplies and call your friends in to ride out the storm, I'm not here to tell you the do's and don'ts. You can get all of that information from newspapers, TV, radio or online. I'm here to talk about complacency, perhaps the biggest reason there are so many deaths each year from hurricanes.

I've had the pleasure of working on MacDill Air Force Base at NOAA's facility in Hangar 5 for 20 years, and I'm quite aware the folks assigned to this base are intelligent, professional men and women. But before I talk about one of the biggest faults people have with respect to hurricanes, I thought I'd explain where I'm coming from and why I feel qualified to talk about hurricanes.

I have worked at NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center for 45 years, starting here when the facility operated old piston engine DC-6's and a DC-4. We graduated to our current turboprop WP-3D's in 1975 and 1976 and our Gulfstream G-IV in 1996. As a scientist and crew member I have made more than 500 penetrations into hurricanes, two of which almost cost me my life. But, I'm still here and enjoying what I do.

In addition I've suffered through three hurricanes on the ground at my home in Miami, those being Hurricanes Andrew in 1992 (the big one), and Katrina and Wilma, both in 2005. They were interesting to sit through in my home (I was not in an evacuation zone), but believe me, the aftermath was no fun. In each case we were without power for more than two weeks, and in the heat of the summer, cleaning up the debris left from the storm was a bit tedious and exhausting. When you are so accustomed to lights, air conditioning, hot water and refrigeration, not having these is a huge sacrifice.

1) A person may say "the odds of being hit by a hurricane are so small I'm really not concerned until it's too late."

This is not the lottery, and the odds aren't small. Hurricanes are large weather systems that can cause damage, injuries and death over a wide area. As mentioned above, I've been hit by hurricanes three times in my life, so I know that as long as you live along the Gulf coast or eastern seaboard of the U.S., you are likely to experience a land-falling storm during some period of your life. Living in the Tampa area is somewhat of a blessing because hurricanes tend to miss this area. However, due to the low terrain here, it is susceptible to major flooding from a storm surge (the high mound of water that moves in the front, right quadrant of the storm). That wall of water, which can stretch as high as 20 feet in a major storm, is the real killer and cause of so much devastation. Do not be lulled into a state of complacency thinking you are safe before that storm passes you by.

2) A Category 1 hurricane, the weakest category of all, may be a day or two from landfall.

People living near the coast think this is a trivial storm for which there is no reason to be alarmed and many think this is the perfect time for a hurricane party.

In reality a lot can go very wrong in the short time it takes the storm to arrive. A hurricane can intensify to a Category 3 or 4 in a very short period, depending on where it makes landfall. By then it might be too late to evacuate. Case in point: In 1992, Hurricane Andrew went from a Cat 2 to a Cat 5 as it crossed the Gulf Stream just offshore before slamming into Florida on the southern fringes of Miami, causing wide-spread destruction and death in that area. Another case was Hurricane Charlie, in 2004, moving north in the eastern Gulf toward Tampa and MacDill AFB only to make a sharp right turn toward the northeast, just east of Fort Meyers. It intensified very rapidly to a Cat 4, dealing a severe blow to Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, before moving across the state and hitting Orlando along the way. Good news for Tampa - bad news for those living along the Peace River. This caught many Floridians by surprise.

3) Many of you probably look at the five- to seven-day forecast tracks put out four times a day by the Hurricane Center and realize you are in the center of that forecast cone. What should you make of the storm's chances of following that track to landfall?

It wasn't too long ago most people would breathe a sigh of relief, if this were the case, because in each succeeding forecast the track would move away from them. It's time to place that notion aside. Track forecasts have improved tremendously over the past few years, much of it due to the research done by NOAA scientists aboard our Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Take Super Storm Sandy for instance. Seven days out the Hurricane Center issued a track forecast showing the storm, already having re-curved and moving toward the northeast, would at some point turn back to the northwest and smash into the New Jersey and Long Island coasts. There was little belief in the forecast and most of the residents were lulled into a sense of complacency only to be rudely awakened shortly thereafter with a powerful blow that took 125 lives in N.J., New York and Pennsylvania, causing billions of dollars in damages. The good news is the forecast seven days out was spot on. The bad news is many didn't believe it and were lulled into a sense of complacency.

So, what's the take-home message here? Actually there are three. Whenever there is a tropical storm or hurricane in your area, continue to be vigilant and do not become complacent. Secondly, if you live in an evacuation zone, follow the instructions from emergency managers and evacuate if ordered. Lastly, have a plan on what to do if you unfortunately find yourself in the path of a storm. Awareness and preparedness are the keys to survival - not complacency.