As I write this on Saturday, we are nervously watching Hurricane Isaias stumble, sputter and bluster her way across the Caribbean as she nears some sort of interaction with Florida’s east coast. By the time you read this, he will have trundled on past Florida and whatever he did to us will be old news.
I’m hoping that our friends in the Bahamas don’t suffer too much, especially those in the northern Bahamas where they are still working on recovery and rebuilding from last year’s encounter with monster Hurricane Dorian. Those islands around Grand Bahama and in the Marsh Harbor area deserve a break.
We are now entering the busiest portion of hurricane season, and it’s unlikely that Isaias will be our last storm of the year. So, many of us will be spending a lot of our time monitoring tropical weather forecasts in the coming months. Nowadays we have amazing information available right at our fingertips and I think we take this for granted.
But not so very long ago, this was not the case. The level of technology at our disposal has changed dramatically just during my lifetime. When I was born, most of our hurricane forecasting was based on reports from weather stations at lighthouses and on remote islands, and from radio reports transmitted by ships at sea. (Editor’s note: Sounds pretty long ago to me.) Did you know that even today, much or our weather information is still provided by commercial ships as they transit the world’s oceans?
Now we have networks of satellites providing us with a torrent of detailed overhead images, powerful radars that reach out hundreds of miles into the storms, and highly sophisticated “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft that fly through the heart of the storms collecting detailed data about what’s going on in their tumultuous interiors. All this information is quickly fed into supercomputers that manipulate inconceivable volumes of numbers in various models, which then spit out those forecasts that we fixate upon whenever a storm is in the offing.
We have come to take those hurricane tracks and cones for granted, but they are a relatively new development. How many of you remember when grocery stores, drug stores and other businesses had pads of paper hurricane tracking charts on their counters during hurricane season?
During a visit to the store, you’d peel a sheet off the pad, take it home, and then listen to the news for the estimated latitude and longitude of an approaching storm, then plot it as an “X” on the chart. By plotting coordinates for a day or two we’d get an idea of how fast the storm was traveling and where it might be headed. There were few, if any, images of this stuff on our TV weather forecasts.
Over the 40 years or so that I’ve been paying attention to tropical weather, there have also been great strides made in our ability to actually predict the movements of these storms. NOAA is now really pretty good at forecasting their paths. Yes, there are still storms that take unexpected courses, but this has become the exception rather than the norm.
But NOAA and the world’s other forecasters are still not very good at predicting the strength of tropical weather systems. The folks in Corpus Christi got a good example of this about two weeks ago when Hurricane Hanna hit the Texas coast. On Thursday, July 23, the forecast was for that system to make landfall as a modest 45-mph tropical storm. But when she arrived two days later on a Saturday, it was as a robust 90-mph hurricane.
I suspect that there are people in Texas who were nonchalant about their storm preparations based on that 48-hour advance forecasting who now wish that they’d have done more prep. There is a lesson there for us about being diligent about our own defenses against approaching storms. The old saying “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best” is actually very good advice when it comes to hurricane prep.
I have gone into hurricane prep mode on many occasions, and most of those times the hours and hours of sweaty work was not needed. But the consequences of failing to adequately prepare, especially when there are multiple boats involved, can be catastrophic. Thank goodness we went into full hurricane prep mode for Charley in 2004, even though that storm was predicted to make landfall in Tampa.
TV weathercasters, especially the young ones, can be entertaining to watch. Jim Cantore became famous in part because of his habit of showing up in the worst imaginable weather and broadcasting from the thick of it. We’ve all seen him leaning into the wind with one hand holding his hat in place while he yells into the microphone to be heard over the raging tempest. If there is rain or salt spray blowing sideways, or if a roof goes tumbling by in the background, so much the better.
Many of our local weather reporters want to do the same thing. But somehow the effect is not the same when a hopeful young weathercaster, who is clearly very excited about being able to report on a real storm and thereby launch a career of fame and fortune, pulls on a shiny new pair of rubber boots and stands in 6 inches of water in a swale to make his or her report.
That’s it for today — I’m off to check on that cone.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.