The Big Ones

October 28, 2012

In my youth I read any weather book I could get my hands on. One that I particularly treasured was called simply The Weather Book, which was written by the founding editor of the USA Today’s weather page.

Unfortunately, I do not have my copy on hand to quote from or refresh my memory on its contents. But as I recall, it had a page or two on the scenarios that meteorologists were most afraid of. One was a major hurricane hitting New Orleans and the other was a hurricane hitting the New York area.

The damages envisioned in the scenarios were so grave that some in the weather community always felt compelled, either in the name of safety or self-aggrandizement, to treat every storm that neared those locales as being The One.

To some extent, it was these false alarms that brought complacency to the Louisiana and Mississippi. Many people treated the nightmare scenario as a piece of fiction that would never really happen and paid the consequence. Others, who were a bit more in touch with reality, found themselves thinking “Wow,this is actually happening. It was the former group of people that I was thinking of when, speaking to my father on the afternoon prior to Katrina’s landfall I said, “This is going to be so bad that people won’t believe it until they see it.”

That is not to say that meteorologists did not try to spread the word. A meteorologist at the local National Weather service office put his soul into his work

URGENT — WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA
1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28, 2005

...DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED...

.HURRICANE KATRINA...A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED
STRENGTH...RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.

MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS...PERHAPS LONGER. AT
LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL
FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL...LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY
DAMAGED OR DESTROYED....

National Weather Service Bulletin for New Orleans region (Wikipedia)

Just as Ivan was the last false alarm prior to Katrina, I fear that Irene will be seen as the last false alarm for the metro New York nightmare scenario.

As was the case prior to Katrina, some forecasters are putting their soul into their work


National Weather Service Office Philadelphia/Mount Holly Hurricane Sandy briefing

To restate what I wrote earlier, there are some who treat storms as their source of personal entertainment and do not hesitate to crank up the hype. There are others who take every unnecessary death in a storm as a personal failing. While the latter group contains cautious people (in the sense that they will advise some precautions that will prove to be unnecessary), they are so cautious that they do not pour their soul into their work when it is not warranted. Robert Ricks, the author of the Katrina bulletin, stopped and re-read his bulletin, to make sure that he didn’t include any statement that was unwarranted. I suspect that Gary Szatkowski exercised the same amount of caution when he drafted his “personal plea”.
Three possible sources of complacency, which I will briefly address:

  • “They don’t really know if the storm will hit us”

“Given how many of the New York false alarms happened in the not so recent past, this sense is probably greater among older people than is generally appreciated. Their memories are sharper of the days when hurricanes were totally unpredictable beasts and forecasts weren’t to be trusted beyond a day out. Those days are long past. While it is true that forecasters cannot predict the exact landfall point two days out, the science has progressed such that they will not miss by much. Hence the NWS forecaster’s statement that “The focus of efforts should be on when Sandy hits our region, not if Sandy hits our region.”

  • “They said Irene was going to be the horrible one and it wasn’t”

While this storm seems similar to Irene in the headline numbers that the public is most familiar with (maximum winds, Saffir-Simpson category) , it is a very different storm. At the comparable position point in Irene’s life, the extent of hurricane force winds was 85 miles with tropical storm force winds extending 285 miles away from the center. Right now hurricane winds extend up to 175 miles away from the center of Sandy and tropical storm winds reach out a staggering 520 miles. This has tremendous implications for storm surge. The most recent analysis of Sandy’s winds from NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division reveals an extremely high potential for damage from storm surge, higher than any hurricane observed in the 1969-2005 time-frame (See Dr. Masters’ commentary Sandy’s storm surge a huge threat for more on this.) As Dr Masters notes, Irene was a close call. The storm surge from Sandy will be worse.

Allow me to pick a random data point from a location with which I am personally familiar: Bridges in Chesapeake, Virginia have been closed due to flooding caused by Sandy. This happened during Irene as well. Irene, however, passed immediately to the south of Chesapeake. Sandy is over 300 miles away.

  • “It just doesn’t seem that bad. It’s a category one hurricane, and a border-line one at that.”

Of the three points listed here, it’s the one I have the most sympathy for. For years now forecasters have known that they needed to either tweak the Saffir-Simpson scale or bring additional measures of a storm’s potential for destruction into the public eye. For various reasons that has not happened. This may very well be that brings in new measures. I fear that due to the public’s unfamiliarity with the Hurricane Research Divsion’s product they think it’s something not quite real that is being used as a tool of the hypesters. That is not the case. It is a very real warning.

Complicating matters is the technical matter of Sandy’s nature when the storm makes landfall. Resulting from that is a “controversy” over whether the National Hurricane Center should be issuing warnings for the northeast. The NHC issued a two page release on the matter. I don’t have anything to say on the matter. This is not the time to be arguing.

It is a time for meteorologists to sound the alarm and for residents in and near the path of Sandy to prepare for the worst. While, by terminology, Sandy will not be the first major hurricane to hit the United States since 2005, it will be major in the conventional sense of the word. As far as the New York City nightmare scenario goes, Sandy is The Big One.

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