Monday, August 29, 2011

Was Hurricane Irene Really "Over-Hyped", or Did it Just Not Affect You?

Several of the "traditional" media outlets and tons of social media outlets (including bloggers) are out there today saying that certain factions of the meteorological community and related media "over-hyped" the potential impact of Hurricane (and later Tropical Storm) Irene this past weekend (some didn't even bother to wait for the storm to end before advancing that theory).

I'd like to ask those who believe that Irene was "over-hyped" a few questions:

If one of your friends or loved ones were one of the now 35 people that have been confirmed dead as a result of Hurricane Irene - would you feel that the event was over-hyped?

If you or your business were one of the 15 million that lost power at the height of the storm - would you feel that the event was over-hyped?

If you or your business were one of the 3.5 million - yes, 3.5 million - that still have no power as of this writing, and have been given an estimate of up to 2 weeks before power will be completely restored - would you feel that the event was over-hyped?

Power outages continue blue shaded areas

I realize those of you who are pro "it was hyped" are probably rolling your eyes and growing tired right now... but stick with me on this for just a minute...

If you or your business were one of the tens of thousands that currently reside within the flood zone of a bank-full river that isn't forecast to crest for up to a week - would you feel that the event was over-hyped?

There are many more examples, but as they say, a picture is worth 1,000  If you were walking along what used to be a state highway along the North Carolina coast that has now been reduced to rubble (like the gentleman walking in the picture at the top of this post) - would you feel that the event was over-hyped?

Common sense says that the answer to each of the above questions would be a resounding "NO" - but I realize that's not the society that we live in today.  In the always on, "it's all about me" world, many are only concerned with anything that's happening within a 50 foot radius (and that may be generous) of good 'ol NUMBER ONE.

Sure, Irene could have been much, much worse, and I for one am thankful that she didn't live up to her full potential.  While winds at the surface level were sustained at "only" 90 mph with gusts to 115 mph along the North Carolina coast (see image below), just a few hundred feet above the surface level the winds were howling at 130-140 mph - sustained!

Maximum wind gusts observed with Irene
Sustained winds were generally 75-80% of the gust values

Why the stronger winds just a few hundred feet aloft did not mix down to the surface level is just one of several questions that we have left to answer after an event such as Irene, but that's a good example of why myself and other meteorologists were warning residents and businesses in high-rise buildings that winds would be stronger above the 20th floor than they would be at the surface.

You see, in the weather business, you take the best information that you have available and pass it along in the best way that you know how.  Whether or not those on the receiving end of the warning choose to listen is out of your control to a great degree.  That is a personal decision that is made by balancing past experience with current information.  If the person being warned feels threatened, they'll probably act (to what degree depends on the person).  If they don't feel threatened they'll probably sit back and watch how things play out for awhile before deciding whether or not to take action.

The above maximum wind gust map (which I compiled by utilizing the Iowa State University database that you can access here) only tells part of the story.  There were thousands of individual reports of uprooted trees which resulted in power outages without giving specific wind gust estimates.  The image below shows where those types of reports were concentrated, to the right of the red line:

While I can't speak for other weather-related bloggers or those in the media, the single most significant impact of Irene that we warned of on this blog was the possibility of widespread tree and powerline damage, which would lead to widespread power outages.  Whether or not you call that "over-hyping" is open to interpretation I suppose, but in the end, you can't argue with the facts.

Add to that the flooding that is ongoing or has yet to occur (because rivers are still rising and have not yet flown out of their banks in many areas) and Irene will top out as a storm causing damage in the tens of billions of dollars - one of the top 10 (and possibly in the top 5) costliest hurricanes in U.S. History.  That's not hype - that's a cold hard fact.

Let's look at Irene another way.  An EF-0 tornado has wind speeds of 65-85 mph.  Using that criteria, Irene was the equivalent of a nearly 200 mile wide EF-0 tornado that traveled along a path over 750 miles in length and inhabited by over 50 million people.  Let me ask you this:  if we could give advanced, track-specific warning on such a tornado event, would you want to hear about it, or would we be over-hyping the event?

Sure, the forecast may not have been perfect (and the degree of accuracy, as always, was highly dependent upon the source), but really, when was the last time you've been given 5 days advance warning of the equivalent of a 700+ mile long, 200 mile wide EF-0 tornado that was as accurate as the track forecast provided for Hurricane Irene?

Was it really over-hyped, or was it just inconvenient?

Putting all of the hype vs. reality arguments aside, the real question is this:  Will you be ready when the next hurricane approaches?  Perhaps more importantly, if you receive warning that your family is threatened by the storm, will you take action and move to a safe place in advance, or will you decide to stay behind and take your chances just because you felt (or were told) that Irene was over-hyped ("so this one must be too")?

After weighing the options as they relate to where you live and how the storm is forecast to come in, I hope that you'll choose the former option... because the latter one is a gamble that could end up costing you your life...

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stormy said...

I could not have said this better myself, sir.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post! Please keep the info coming. More of us are listening than you might expect.

Shamrock said...

Well said, Rob! I agree totally.