WATCH | Storm Team 2 Hurricane Special: Lessons Learned

Tracking the Tropics

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCBD) – The past several months have been difficult as we have and continue to face a situation none of us have ever encountered before. This pandemic may be new to all of us, but hurricanes certainly are not. We’ve been through our fair share.

As another hurricane season begins, we look to the past to better prepare for the future. In this special, Storm Team 2 will guide you through some of the previous storms to hit us with wind, rain, storm surge, tornadoes – drawing insights from these impacts to better understand what tropical systems can do.

These are lessons learned.

Let’s begin with the storm most recent in our memory, Hurricane Dorian. Dorian was the storm of the 2019 season. An absolute monster of a storm; it was the most powerful hurricane recorded in the open Atlantic with max sustained winds of 185mph.

LESSON 1: SLUGGISH STORMS

More frightening than its strength was its speed, or lack thereof. Without any steering currents from the upper atmosphere, the category 5 storm battered the Bahamas for a truly nightmarish 48 hours before mercifully crawling north. Sluggish storms like this aren’t unheard of- Florence and Harvey also come to mind. According to NOAA meteorologist Jim Kossin, sluggish hurricanes may become the new norm.

“There’s general agreement that over the continental United States, starting around 1900, we can’t go back much further than that, we found a significant slowdown of about 17%.”

That number may seem insignificant – but it certainly is not.

“On average it’s about 17%, but the reality is Dorian, the reality is Harvey, these are storms that are practically not moving… they’re responsible for a fair chunk of that 17%.”

His research boils down to one statement- slower, stronger, wetter hurricanes like Dorian are happening more often as the currents that drive these storms westward weaken. We should be prepared for impacts to be possibly drawn out for days. And in general, longer-lasting tropical systems.

LESSON 2: THE WAITING GAME

Two weeks would pass between Dorian’s formation in the eastern Atlantic (Aug 24) and landfall on the outer banks (Sept 6). Much of that time was spent anxiously watching… and waiting. This prolonged period caused justifiable anxiety as this system begged for our attention for days on end. Uncertainty grew as conflicting forecast models didn’t offer any concrete answers to where it would go. The longer you had to wait- the antsier you got to seek out answers- from any source.

This problem has become worse as forecast models have become widely available to anyone.

Information from a single weather model run can be taken out of context and shared on social media where it spreads like wildfire. Help us combat misinformation throughout this season by following and sharing forecasts only sources you can trust.

Be wary of posts that don’t communicate the inherent uncertainty in forecasts which we illustrated to you in the days leading up to its impact.

In the end, Dorian slipped by just off our shore; a close call compared to another storm a few years earlier that could have done the same but ended up becoming the biggest storm we’ve seen in nearly 30 years – Matthew.

It was clear early on that the storm would be something to watch as it would either barely miss to the east or hit the South Carolina coast directly.

Back in 2016, Lowcountry residents began preparing for the possibility, if not likelihood of a direct strike, the most menacing track since Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Matthew promised to bring high winds, isolated tornadoes, and the deadliest of all threats, water.

LESSON 3: WATER KILLS

Matthew’s storm surge washed across the coast as the storm moved north, with many communities experiencing surge heights of three to five feet above ground level. Charleston harbor reached its highest water level since Hurricane Hugo. Structure failures and properties which had never flooded before were inundated. Widespread heavy rain only compounded issues.

More than 10 inches fell, causing widespread, significant flooding across the Carolinas, which was just beginning to recover from the catastrophic flooding in October of 2015.

25 would die in North Carolina, four in South Carolina. All but one due to flooding. Of the deaths in North Carolina, over three quarters of deaths occurred in vehicles despite public warnings to stay put and avoid flood waters.

Historically water, the combined threat of inland flooding and storm surge, is responsible for 90% of hurricane deaths. Avoid becoming a statistic by following the simple rule, turn around don’t drown.

The death toll, damage, and disruption to life for months brings up another important point: category or classification doesn’t always matter.

LESSON 4: CATEGORY ISN’T EVERYTHING

“In the last decade category 1 storms have killed 175 people and caused $103 billion worth of damage,” said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center. “It is not about that category – it’s about the impacts.”

Although Matthew made landfall as a category 1 hurricane, impacts for some were greater than what have been felt by storms with higher wind speeds. Remember, category and storm classification, is wind speed dependent, and other, possibly more significant impacts aren’t considered.

“We’ve tried so hard at the NHC to separate those impacts from the category with a storm surge watch and warning. I think we’re doing a good job of that but it’s a constant reminder that the category is just the wind.”

Discussions continue among leading experts in meteorology and social sciences to improve the communication of impact-based forecasts that are not necessarily focused on category alone.

Water and wind typically are the main impacts of a hurricane, but time and time again, tornadoes have proven to be a real, but sometimes overlooked threat in landfalling hurricanes.

LESSON 5: TORNADO THREATS

Our severe weather outbreak this past April that produced over a dozen tornadoes was historic for both their power and their quantity.

You see, tornadoes are rare in the Lowcountry, and a good chunk of our tornadoes don’t occur in spring, but autumn as hurricanes move onto land.

We see this time and time again with tropical systems. In fact, it’s rare for a hurricane to not produce tornadoes after landfall. The majority of these don’t form in the eyewall, but in the intense outer bands that can extend over 200 miles away from the storm’s center, usually in the front right quadrant or to the northeast of the hurricane’s eye.

This “sweet spot” for tornado development comes down to spin, or shear. At the surface, we’re battered with strong southeast winds as the storm’s bands circulate counterclockwise. But higher up in the atmosphere, the wind comes from the nearly opposite direction! This vertical wind shear only increases after landfall as winds at the surface slow down due to friction over land, increasing that tornado threat.

Spin ups can happen quickly, so be alert and ready to move to your established “safe place”- preferably an interior room on the first floor of your home without any windows or outside facing doors. 

Thankfully, these tornadoes are short-lived and generally weak compared to springtime supercells, like the Lowcountry experienced this year.

While tornadoes pose a much more isolated risk compared to wind, rain, and storm surge in tropical systems, they’re still worth planning for. Especially for tropical systems that crash into the Florida panhandle and move north, placing us in the front right quadrant.

This pattern with Irma in 2017 produced 4 tornadoes in the Charleston metro and 13 with Frances in 2004, both of which were tropical storms by the time they reached us.

This goes to show that you should be prepared for any system, even tropical storms, whether it’s your first or 40th hurricane season!

LESSON 6: TREAT EACH STORM AS YOUR FIRST

“Don’t let the last hurricane kill people again because they make their decisions on what happened in the past,” said Michael Brennan with the National Hurricane Center. “People need to take action on what’s possible, not their own experiences in their own lifespan, as that’s a pretty short amount of time compared to what nature can do.”

Hurricane Hugo truly was a “once a generation” storm. Nearly 30 years before Hugo was Gracie, and now just over 30 years since Hugo’s devastation in 1989, we’ve been blessed to not see one like it arrive on our shores. What made Hugo different and more dangerous, was its origin.

LESSON 7: CAPE VERDE HURRICANES ARE WORTH WATCHING

Anytime we see a storm of any kind forming in the far eastern Atlantic Ocean, we can’t help being concerned. Some of the worst hurricanes of all time have formed in a region off the coast of Africa known as the Cape Verde Islands.

Hugo started as a cluster of storms in Africa, coming off the coast, and then began the journey across the warm waters of the ocean. The reason these hurricanes have normally been looked at differently is for the most part, there’s no land to weaken these storms, just warm water to act as fuel to their fire.

We started tracking Hugo very early on because of this reason, knowing this could be one of those Cape Verde storms. 

A quick note: just because a storm forms in this area does not mean it will make landfall here. But with early weather satellite data, we were able to see Hugo form from inception, to its landing here in South Carolina.

It was a long night spent with Hugo… the direct impact was over by the following morning, but Hugo’s wrath was deadliest after it had come and gone.

LESSON 8: THE DANGER DOESN’T LEAVE WITH THE STORM

Nearly all the 26 deaths attributed to Hugo in South Carolina occurred after the storm, during the cleanup.

These deaths are labeled “indirect fatalities,” as Michael Brennan from the National Hurricane Center explains, “We have a lot of these indirect fatalities, where people survive the storm itself, but they die afterwards from electrocutions, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical issues…”

Studies show that the number of “indirect deaths” is almost the same as the number of “direct deaths” with hurricanes, Hugo proved that that sometimes the aftermath can be more deadly than landfall.

“It’s because people are being left in these very vulnerable situations where they may not have any power, any water, or any emergency services- sometimes for weeks. If you’re asked to leave-leave.”

Evacuation orders need to be taken seriously, especially now as our forecast models and accuracy improve.

LESSON 9: FORECAST ACCURACY IMPROVEMENTS

Computer models were in existence in the 80s, but they were nowhere near where they are today in terms of grid points and resolution. Our tracking back then was done the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper, plotting each latitude and longitude point given at each update.

There were no “cones of uncertainty” back in 89. Plots were dots on a map which viewers locked on to likely unaware of the errors that the track could have. Models have come a long way since then. 5-day forecasts today are as accurate as a 24-hour forecast back in 1980.

While track forecasts have improved exponentially, intensity forecasts haven’t advanced much and still prove to be difficult and complex today.

As coastal populations expand, our hurricane forecasts must continue to improve. Nearly two times as many people live in South Carolina’s coastal counties now compared to 30 years ago with more potentially in harm’s way next time a monster storm arrives.

So far in 2020 we’ve seen a global pandemic, violent tornadoes, unrest across the nation and in our city. It’s been draining, at times overwhelming.

Unfortunately, this hurricane season looks to add on top of this; forecasters are calling for an above average number of storms, of which we’ve already seen several.

As we head into the peak of this active season, we all need to seriously consider our mental health. Alan Stewart, a psychology and meteorology professor at the University of Georgia, explains how the trauma and stress from these events can add up.

“The body keeps score. The psyche remembers. So if there’s a cumulative history of these traumatic events that a person has lived through, and we’re all getting a big dose of that with COVID-19, come storm season, that extra layer of potential stress could really result in challenging times for people’s mental health.”

Understand that while the weather is out of your control, your preparedness is not. He recommends creating a hurricane kit and plan with your family. Hopefully creating some peace of mind that we’ll need in the coming months.

Storm Team 2 will be with you every step of the way. You can find more information and resources in the Tracking the Tropics section of our website, by clicking here. You can also downtown the 2020 Hurricane Ready Guide and tune in to News 2 every day for the latest forecast.

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