Calling the Turn: Uncertainties and Challenges of Hurricane Season

September 11, 2017

In spite of all the drama shown on TV, waiting for a hurricane to pass can be almost boring. My biggest concern now is lack of wind. It’s not blowing hard enough to activate the self-trimming function of my tallest palm tree. We’re supposed to get to tropical storm force winds in an hour or two, building up to a maximum around midnight. Sixty knots out of the southeast should be enough to trim that tree. And the dead branches will fly northwestward across the canal, giving them plenty of time to drop to ground level before they reach the homes on the other side. No second story windows there, anyway, and the houses are all boarded up.

My “self trimming” queen palm- too tall for an extension ladder, growing in a spot you can’t reach with heavy equipment.

So many evacuations. I remember running from Floyd, when the whole state of Florida seemed to be in motion. Our home was pretty secure, but we were afraid our motor home would be destroyed, so we drove across the state, stopping overnight in Apopka when the engine began to run rough and overheat. Suspecting big trouble, I sought out a mechanic who could do engine work.

“I knowed what the problem was when you pulled in here, a hissin’ and a-spittin’,” he said, opening the hood. “Look here.” He pulled on the throttle rod and the water pump pulley flexed in and out. He was an amateur pilot; pictures of an immaculate J-3 Cub decorated walls of his corregated iron shop.

As he was tightening the last bolts on the new water pump, tropical storm winds set in, slamming the shop doors and bending the palm trees outside. We continued on west to a campground in Crystal River, as far as we could get from Floyd’s predicted track up the east coast.

But Floyd barely touched the state, turning north and tracking far offshore along the east coast. An angry weatherman in Miami couldn’t believe the official forecast. “I called the turn!” he protested. “Why didn’t they pick up on it?” As it turned out, millions evacuated needlessly, including us.

I don’t have the explanation, but forecasters were working with an array of relatively new tools, including Doppler radar and extensive satellite imagery. Maybe the analysis techniques hadn’t caught up with the new instruments.

I’ve never hesitated when evacuation orders came out. We hear them more often now, living on an inner barrier island. This time we were well prepared to evacuate, and also prepared to return and live without electricity for a few days. But I waited till near the end of the mandatory evacuation period, just to see.

Some new shutters on my pool deck. I’ll be installing more. This side of the house used to have some protection, until Matthew blew the screen room away.

I had planned my route on an old fashioned paper map. No GPS would consent to the roundabout way I planned to go, avoiding the interstates. Florida has a dense road network, once you get across the St. Johns, and there are lots of ways to get from A to B. I’d much rather be moving toward my destination at 40 mph than stuck in gridlock, idling away my fuel.

Like so many times before, a hurricane was approaching through the Bahamas and the Florida Strait, heading almost due west, and forecasters kept predicting a turn to the north. First the track was going to go up the east coast. Then it was to go right up the middle of the peninsula. Thursday night, midway through our evacuation window, the predicted track was still edging west.

A hurricane moves almost passively, like a deep eddy in a flowing river. Forecasters reason from the pattern of the river’s flow and the pressure field that generates it. Both patterns are three dimensional, changing drastically with altitude. It’s a difficult problem to analyze. We get excellent, detailed forecasts, that change with every update.

Saturday morning, I kept working on shutters and cleanup, and waited for the 11 AM update. By then, our chances of hurricane force winds were down to 10%, lower than any place we could reasonably evacuate to. At my brother’s home in Gainesville, where we had planned to stay, there was a better than 50% chance of hurricane force winds. So we stayed home.

I talked with my brother late last night about the plate glass windows in his drugstore. He had plenty of scrap plywood, and they wouldn’t see strong winds until the following evening. With some timber and fasteners, they could have protected at least the south facing windows.

But that’s probably not worth doing now, because the track has shifted further west, and their chance of hurricane force winds has dropped to a few per cent.

Our biggest risk now- unless Irma makes a turn back to the east- will be tornadoes embedded in the rain bands. We’ve started to get tornado warnings, the weather radio sounding its alarm now and then to announce another severe thunderstorm being monitored. They’ve all been in the south end of the county so far, but the first big rain band is working its way north.

The turn has been made; the storm track is slightly west of north now. We’ll be safe here if it follows the predicted path. Good luck to those on the Gulf coast.

It’s wonderful to have all the information and the long advance warning of tropical storms. We’ve had plenty of time to prepare. And lots of practice.

We’ve had lots of time, too, to prepare for the coming tempest of resource deplection and global warming. A few individuals and communities have done some preparation, which they won’t regret. But our government and financial leaders are throwing a hurricane party.

I’ve read so many predictions of financial collapse, oil industry collapse, hyperinflation and deflation, I hardly pay attention any more. Overshoot, the Seneca Cliff, etc. The predictions make sense; anyone who cares to look can see the storm coming. But no one can call the turn.

I may add to this post later. The wind is picking up.

Bob Wise

Robert Wise brings a lifetime of eclectic experience to inform his Eclectications Blog—field artillery, graduate study in geography and meteorology, mapmaking, college teaching, computer programming in scientific applications, boatbuilding, and developing maps and imagery to support a workstation that could deploy anywhere on earth.

Tags: building resilient communities, Emergency preparedness, extreme weather events, Hurricane Irma, hurricanes