StormStruck

Today I was honored to participate in the grand opening of StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes Exhibit located in Walt Disney World’s EPCOT.  Attendees, including FEMA Administrator David Paulison, National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read, Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) President and CEO Leslie Chapman Henderson, and many others, were given a sneak peek at the ‘experience’ of StormStruck.

 

This exhibit has gone from vision to reality over a seven year period.   StormStruck is an interactive ‘4-D’ experience designed to educate, engage, and entertain visitors with critical knowledge and tips on how to prepare for and counteract natural weather hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, etc.

 

After seeing and interacting with the exhibit, I am confident that countless people will be better prepared to deal with major weather hazards.  It is refreshing to see the partnerships between Disney, FLASH, the insurance industry, government meteorologists, private sector weather consultants, and suppliers of building products.  I congratulate the team involved in making StormStruck a reality.

Remembering Herb Saffir

A memorial service for Herb Saffir was held Wednesday. Stories shared at the service made it clear that Herb was indeed a remarkable person and a major contributor to our nation’s Hurricane Warning Program.

I thought I knew Herb pretty well, but there was one story that I had not heard until the service.

By the time Herb was seventeen, he had fallen in love with the sea and was working on a cruise ship named the SS Morro Castle. The ship’s final voyage began in Havana on Sept. 5, 1934. On the Sept. 7, the Captain of the SS Morro Castle died of an apparent heart attack and the command of the ship was passed to the Chief Officer.

During the overnight hours, the ship began encountering winds over 30 mph as it moved up the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Shortly before 3 a.m., a fire was detected and within 20 minutes the ship was plunged into darkness and the wheelhouse lost its ability to steer the ship. Conditions grew steadily worse, and the decision became either jump or burn for many passengers.

Eventually, six of the ship’s 12 lifeboats were able to be launched but carried only 85 people, most of whom were crew members. Herb Saffir was one who jumped into the water with a life preserver. Several nearby ships eventually came to help rescue the survivors in large ocean swells. By mid-morning on Sep. 8, the ship was totally abandoned and its hull drifted ashore, coming to a stop in shallow water off Asbury Park, New Jersey. In the end, 135 passengers and crew (out of a total of 549) were lost. According to friends, Herb was in the water for 7 to 8 hours and is credited with saving one woman’s life by keeping her afloat.

Herb gave up the life at sea and eventually received a civil engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1940. He moved to Miami in 1947 with his wife Sarah. His encounter with two hurricanes that first year in Florida appears to have focused his attention on the need for better building.

Most of us will remember Herb for being the initial creator of what has become known as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale (SSHS). This scale came out of a 1969 United Nations commissioned study of windstorm damage on low-cost housing. Herb shared his scale with then Director of the National Hurricane Center, Dr. Robert Simpson in the early 1970s. Dr. Simpson added a storm surge component to the scale because so many lives were being lost from this hazard. By the mid 1970s the scale was operational.

Most people don’t have any idea what type of damage 100 mph winds or 125 mph winds or 150 mph winds can do in a hurricane. The SSHS was nothing short of brilliant in helping forecasters communicate the intensity of a hurricane through a simple number – 1 through 5 – along with the type of damage that could be expected with each category. Today, most emergency management evacuation plans are based, in large part, on the SSHS category along with the time of arrival of tropical storm force winds.

Herb was also a persistent advocate for stronger building codes.

Some years ago, Herb said “One of the items rarely mentioned by NOAA is the existence – or lack – of strong and well-enforced building codes….Preparedness information at the time focused on bringing in garbage cans and lawn furniture…But the fundamental basis for starting a plan for hurricanes is in the building code.”

At one time Herb even sent me a portion of the Code of Hammurabi, the King of Babylon around 1800 BC, that said “If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.”

Herb gets a lot of credit for helping strengthen the building codes, especially in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.

Herb was also known for sending letters or notes of concern to several people.

Last night I reread some of the correspondence that he had sent me over the years and found his comments on gable ends, doors, windows, garage doors, boats, and the need to trim trees before the hurricane season. Some of his hand written notes include “…most areas of the Gulf coast and Atlantic coast use building codes that are inadequate for hurricane resistance.” “I can make a categoric statement that most coastal areas in the U.S. are in danger of heavy structural damage in a Category 2 or higher hurricane”, “Max, it is ridiculous for the Florida panhandle to have lower standards”, and when referring to Hurricane Wilma damage “…a good example of improper design and lax code enforcement.”

One time he sent me an article about a community in Ohio that was proposing to abolish its building code. Herb basically scared the ‘bejeebers’ out of me, and then ended the note with “Best regards, Herb.”

He helped me understand the importance of strong building codes more than anyone.

He was also a very humble man. For example, when asked to comment on having the Miami-Dade County Herbert S. Saffir Permitting & Inspection Center named after him in October of 2002, he replied “I think I’ve left a little mark.”

One of the last letters I received from Herb stated “Our new Florida building code will be considerably exceeded in its design storm…our Florida engineers should be aware that design storms are based on 50 year frequency hurricanes and can be exceeded.”

If Herb were with us today, I can just imagine him saying “are you listening?”

One of the greatest tributes we could give Herb Saffir is to continue improving our building codes in hurricane vulnerable areas.

Storm Surge Could Mean Potential Tragedy For Bangladesh

Tropical Cyclone Sidr (the Arabic word for the jujube tree) made landfall this morning (EST) in western Bangladesh. The World Meteorological Organization office charged with providing the official tropical cyclone forecasts in the Bay of Bengal is the Regional Specialized Meteorological Center (RSMC) within the India Meteorology Department in New Dehli.

Based on the latest web posting from the RSMC New Dehli (as well as forecasts from the U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center), Sidr was likely the equivalent of a Category 4 Hurricane in the Atlantic.

Millions of people live in the low-lying coastal areas of Bangladesh, and the biggest problem from Sidr will be the storm surge due to the funneling effects in the Bay of Bengal.

Past tragedies in this area include the Great Bhola Cyclone (Category 4) in 1970 that killed at least 300,000 people in Bangladesh (with some estimates up to 500,000) and the 1991 Bangladesh Cyclone (Category 5) that killed 140,000 in that country.

Let us pray that history does not repeat itself.

Why A Warning for Southeast Florida?

The winds have diminished over Southeast Florida, so why did the National Hurricane Center (NHC) issue a Tropical Storm Warning for Noel? The U.S. Air Force Hurricane Hunter plane flying Tropical Storm Noel during the night reported that the extent of tropical storm force winds in the northwest quadrant of the tropical storm has increased. The NHC track forecast has remained fairly consistent and continues to take the center of Noel over Andros Island in the Bahamas and then northeastward across the Abacos. If the NHC has a perfect forecast, the tropical storm force winds associated with Tropical Storm Noel will remain just offshore the Florida coast based on the current forecast. However, a perfect forecast of the track and size of the tropical cyclone (defined by the radius of tropical storm force winds) rarely happens. If the track of Tropical Storm Noel shifts slightly to the west (i.e., closer to Florida), OR if the radius of tropical storm force winds expands in the northwest quadrant, Southeast Florida could experience tropical storm conditions. The probability of this happening is low, but it is not zero.

The Miami Weather Forecast Office sums it up nicely by saying “Conditions at this time are not expected to be any worse than they were over the past couple of days along the coast. The worst conditions will likely be associated with passing rain bands. In this sense, this will be a minimal impact event.”

I think that most people understand the uncertainty related to forecasting the track and intensity of tropical cyclones. Perhaps more education is needed, however, in emphasing the difficulty in forecasting the size of a tropical cyclone. The initial size of a tropical cyclone is difficult enough to determine and depends on the availability of surface reports (land stations, buoys, microwave satellite observations, and aircraft reports of surface winds). The “observing” tools have improved dramatically over recent years. However, operational forecasters have very little guidance on “forecasting” the size of a tropical cyclone.

I have always thought that most folks see color satellite loops, radar animations, and computer model forecasts on television and think that the official forecasts are better than they actually are in reality. The NHC has been very clear in stating that improved guidance on tropical cyclone structure (which includes size, intensity, and radius of maximum winds) must be developed. This is indeed a significant challenge for the meteorological research community.

Caribbean Bears Watching

One of the preferred regions for tropical cyclone genesis late in the hurricane season is the northwestern Caribbean Sea. Development typically occurs on the trailing end of a frontal system that has stalled in this region. Currently, there is a frontal cloud band extending through Florida, western Cuba, and into the northwestern Caribbean.

There is also a weak low-level cyclonic circulation just northeast of Puerto Rico that will be steered westward to west-southwestward and will likely merge with the frontal trough over the next few days. It should be noted that several of the global models suggest an area of low pressure developing over the northwestern Caribbean Sea by early next week.

The computer projections currently hinting at development come from modeling centers in the United Kingdom Meteorological Office, European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting, U.S. Navy, U.S. National Weather Service, and Canada (although it should be noted that the Canadian model frequently over-forecasts tropical cyclone development).

No one can say with certainty whether a tropical cyclone will develop in this region, and even if it does, it is way too early to talk about a future path and intensity. However, at this time the northwestern Caribbean Sea is the area to watch.

So far this year, we have not had a named tropical cyclone in the Atlantic during the month of October. The last season without a named storm after September was 1993. I would be very surprised if something doesn’t develop before this season officially ends.

An Unprecedented Event on October 18-19, 2005

Two years ago, I remember leaving the National Hurricane Center (NHC) for home sometime around midnight while Hurricane Wilma was strengthening in the northwestern Caribbean Sea.

Just as I was about to fall asleep, the phone rang. It was Dr. Lixion Avila, the Senior Hurricane Specialist on duty at the NHC. Lixion told me that a Hurricane Hunter plane had just reported a minimum central pressure of 901 millibars in the eye of Wilma. Over the period from 7:10 pm EDT on October 18th to 12:33 am EDT on October 19th, the central pressure fell from 954 to 901 millibars, which is a remarkable deepening rate of 9.9 millibars per hour.

I thanked Lixion for calling and tried to fall asleep. Around 4:00 am EDT, Lixion called back and, with great excitement that comes from knowing a historical record has just been set, simply said “884 millibars.”

The last observation had come in from that particular reconnaissance plane and the pressure had dropped further to 884 millibars as measured from a dropsonde released in the eye of Wilma. The surface winds from the dropsonde were measured at 27 mph, so the dropsonde probably did not capture the lowest pressure in Wilma’s eye.

The minimum central pressure was later estimated at the time of peak intensity (8:00 am on October 19th) to be 882 millibars which was a new record low value for a hurricane in the Atlantic basin (surpassing the previous record low pressure of 888 millibars in 1988’s Hurricane Gilbert).

The NHC Tropical Cyclone Report on Wilma written by Richard Pasch, Eric Blake, Hugh Cobb, and Dave Roberts can be found at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/pdf/TCR-AL252005_Wilma.pdf.

Within a 24 hour period, Wilma had intensified from a 70 mph tropical storm to a 175 mph category 5 hurricane. This was an unprecedented event for an Atlantic tropical cyclone. It is indeed fortunate that this ultra-rapid strengthening occured over open waters of the Caribbean, and not just prior to landfall. I learned a couple of things that night: 1) Just when I thought I had seen everything the 2005 hurricane season could bring, nature still had a surprise in store for us; and 2) I should have moved the phone in my bedroom to my side of the bed. My wife is not into millibars.

Hurricane Wilma was the 22nd named storm in the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season which included four major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale) striking the United States (Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma). Wilma eventually devastated the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula and also caused extensive damage over southern Florida. The 2005 season continued with six additional storms developing after Wilma, finally ending with the dissipation of Tropical Storm Zeta on January 6, 2006.

What a difference a couple of years makes. There are currently no tropical cyclones being tracked and nothing on the immediate horizon in the Atlantic. Although there are still nearly six weeks left to the official 2007 Atlantic hurricane season, let us hope that by the end of November we will be primarily talking about the less-than-forecast activity experienced this year and trying to figure out why many of the seasonal hurricane forecasts busted.

Of course, there are some folks on the Yucatan peninsula who would argue that this was indeed an active season for them with the landfalls of two Category 5 Hurricanes, Dean and Felix. Remember, it only takes one hurricane over your community to make for a bad year.