I get asked that question quite often. Doing what I do for a living, given my last name, and having proven my prognostication prowess (with money backing up my opinion) by opening our Texas office BEFORE the first of two major hurricanes to hit Texas, I can understand why many come to me for that answer rather than professional meteorologists and psychics. I am not betting on any “major” hurricanes this year. El Niño seems to be preventing tropical storms from making the trek across the Atlantic Ocean. Upper level wind shear has been destroying the movement towards the coastal United States and Gulf regions. Let’s hope it stays that way. And, as I suggested in May with a post, Weak El Nino and Cooler Tropical Waters Lead to Predictions of Fewer Hurricanes, who really knows?

There are two recent and very interesting posts regarding hurricanes worth reading. One is found on Dr. Jeff Masters’ WunderBlog regarding storm surge misconceptions. Everybody should read this important discussion of storm surge. Dr. Master’s correctly noted:

The storm surge is usually the most dangerous threat of a hurricane. The ten deadliest U.S. hurricane disasters, including the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (8000 killed), the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 (2500 killed), and Hurricane Katrina of 2005 (1833 killed), were all primarily storm surge disasters.

He then listed and discussed a number of storm surge misconceptions:

Misconception: Call 911 and you can be rescued, while the water is pouring into your home.
How? No one will be able to get to you. Water rises quickly–sometimes six to ten feet within minutes; cars can’t drive in it, and it is usually unnavigable by boats when it is coming ashore.

Misconception: Just stuff towels under the door jambs. Then rush around to start picking up things that are close to floor level, so you can save them.
Bad idea. In a minute or so the surge will burst open the door, and instead of standing in a room with four inches of water, you’ll be knocked off your feet and into whatever piece of furniture is closest, and will suddenly be in three or four feet of moving water that you can’t make any headway into…just before the refrigerator, quickly rushing through the water towards you, knocks you cold.

Misconception: You’ll be able to maneuver around in the rushing water.
Probably not. Some people who drowned were not even able to get out of the room they were in, when the water started pouring into the home. The speed of water in surge can be equivalent to a Class III or IV rapids (Class V is hardly navigable by expert kayakers and canoers, and Class VI is not navigable at all).

Misconception: You’ll know in time.
The surge is usually not a wall of water as is often assumed, but rather a rapid rise of water of several feet over a period of minutes. It can sneak in unexpectedly, on little cat feet. Most people that were not completely taken by surprise simply happened to look out the window at the right time.

Misconception: You can outrun the storm surge in your car.
Here’s an email I got last year from a resident in the Florida Keys who ignored the evacuation order for Hurricane Ike in 2008: I hate to bother you again, but we live on Marathon in the Florida Keys on the Atlantic side, and my husband says that if we see water coming up from storm surge and have an inch of water in our house, that we can outrun the storm surge in our car. Can you please tell me if there is any way this can possibly be true? P.S., I don’t know of anyone who lives down here who is planning on evacuating for Ike. Everyone says they are staying. If you wait until the water is an inch high before trying to outrun the surge, the odds are that the surge will rise to over a foot high before you get your car out of the driveway. If the water is a foot high, the typical 10 – 15 mph speed of the storm surge’s current has enough force to sweep a car away. In many places along the coast, there is only one road out of a low-lying region prone to storm surges, and the surge will cut off one’s only escape route. The Keys have only one road, and the storm surge will likely be moving perpendicular to the road, cutting off the only escape route. One of these days, there are going to be a lot of people who fail to evacuate caught and killed in the Keys by the storm surge from a major hurricane.

The other post, Tornado Threat Increases as Gulf Hurricanes Get Larger, verifies a number of observations that a Guest Columnist, Rocco Calacci, has made in six previous posts to this Blog. Those posts are:

  1. Is The Saffir-Simpson Scale Still Relevant
  2. Hidden Causes of Hurricane Damage: Meteorologist Rocco Calaci Explains That Hurricanes Are More Than Just High Winds And Water
  3. Part 2: Hidden Causes of Hurricane Damage: Meteorologist Rocco Calaci Explains That Hurricanes Are More Than Just High Winds And Water
  4. A Call To Reassess How We Gauge Damage From Hurricane Winds
  5. Rocco Calaci Questions Current Models Used to Determine Wind Damage
  6. Tropical Storm Erika? – Rocco Calaci Gives His Plain-Talk Interpretation of the National Hurricane Center Bulletin

Rocco will be giving an update on the wind speed data this Friday at our seminar, Hurricane Ike–What a Difference a Year Makes, on September 11, 2009. The Insurance Journal article noted:

Currently, it’s well known that when hurricanes hit land, there’s a risk that tornadoes may form in the area. Until now, no one has quantified that risk because observations of tornadoes were too sporadic prior to the installation of the NEXRAD Doppler Radar Network in 1995. Belanger along with co-authors Judith Curry, professor and chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Tech and research scientist Carlos Hoyos, decided to see if they could create a model using the more reliable tornado record that’s existed since 1995.

The model that they developed for hurricane-induced tornadoes uses four factors that serve as good predictors of tornado activity: size, intensity, track direction and whether there’s a strong gradient of moisture at midlevels in the storm’s environment.

"The size of a tropical cyclone basically sets the domain over which tornadoes can form. So a larger storm that has more exposure over land has a higher propensity for producing tornadoes than a smaller one, on average," said Belanger.

While some may suggest that tornado activity is well accepted, I have sat across from Dr. Max Mayfield and debated this topic at a Windstorm Conference. The better the measuring devices are becoming, the better we understand how some very unique strong winds and gusts are more prevalent than previously thought in hurricanes.