Catching Up to Hurricane Season

Hurricane season began last week with a flood of facts that completely blew out the information belief systems of yours truly. Extensive knowledge repair and reconstruction was required.

While digging out of the wreckage, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1)    Hurricane experts–led by William Gray –say there is a one-in-eleven chance that a hurricane Category 3 or stronger could hit the East Coast between New York City and Cape Cod, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal [that is not on-line].

One such storm came ashore on Long Island with waves thirty to fifty feet high in l938, killing fifty people, in a time when millions fewer lived in the area.

According to the NYTimes [$] Nationwide Insurance will not cover homes within a half-mile of the Long Island coastline. Allstate, which lost $1.55 billion in the third quarter last year, is dropping "thousands" of customers, according to the WSJ, while rival Metlife Auto & Home is greatly restricting the amount of coverage it writes, requiring hurricane shutters or storm windows, and raising the deductible. 

Both insurers say the hurricane of 1938 has factored into their thinking. Back then, few people understood what was coming. While still out at sea, the hurricane at one point was traveling at 70 miles an hour, which remains the record for the fastest moving storm, according to a history compiled by Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor at Suffolk County Community College. At the time, however, most forecasters believed the storm would veer out to sea.

Instead, it plowed into Long Island, but the damage was limited because so much of the island was farmland. A repeat now could be deadlier, and almost certainly costlier. Then, Long Island was home to 600,000 people. Now it has more than 2.8 million. Median home values have risen 30% since 2003 to $475,000, among the highest values in the nation.

"If that were to hit today in the same area, it would rival Hurricane Andrew, if not more so, as far as damage done," says Mike Wiley, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service’s forecasting office on Long Island. If the most forceful winds hit closer to New York City, he added, "It would surpass the damage that we just saw with Hurricane Katrina." And he adds that "statistically, we’re overdue."


(Early News from Hurricane Season 2006)

2)    At Environmental Economics, Tim Haab introduces a Panic Scale to grade hurricane season forecasts with, with categories from EEPS 5 ("Holy Bleep! Enjoy the Time You Have Left") to EEPS 1 ("Problem? We Don’t See a Problem").

Most newspaper headlines on the season this year came in a 3, although FOXNews came in at a 6. More seriously, Dr. Jeff Masters pointed out that:  

The latest 2006 Atlantic hurricane season forecast from the forecast team at Colorado State University (CSU)…is predicting 17 named storms (10 is average), nine hurricanes (six is average), and five intense hurricanes (2.3 is average). This is the highest level of activity they have forecast in their 23 years of making these predictions. They put the odds of a major (Category 3-4-5) hurricane crossing the U.S. coast at 82% (average for last century is 52%). The U.S. East Coast (including Florida) has a 69% chance of a major hurricane strike (31% is average), and the Gulf Coast, 38% (30% is average).

[my emphasis]

3)    In another hurricane-related post, Masters asked a great question about what happened last year in New Orleans:

How is that Mexico, a much poorer country than our own, suffered only four deaths from Hurricane Wilma last year? Recall that Wilma hit the most heavily populated tourist area of Mexico as a Category 4 hurricane, and sat over Cancun for three days. And Hurricane Emily hit Mexico twice, first as a Category 4 at Cozumel, then as a Category 3 near Texas. But no one died in Emily! The difference is that the government of Mexico made a determined effort to evacuate those at risk, and provided transportation. In the U.S., a totally inadequate effort was made–in part, because the people affected were poor and of little concern to the politicians. The City of New Orleans was primarily responsible for coming up with a hurricane evacuation plan, with help from both the state and federal governments. All three branches of government failed this responsibility. In fact, a repeat of Katrina is entirely possible–newly re-elected Mayor Nagin has not yet come up with a workable plan to get those without transportation out of New Orleans for the next hurricane.

4)        In Florida, according to the NYTimes [$], State Farm dropped coverage for 39,000 properties near beaches, and will no longer insure condominiums and co-ops in the state. Allstate transferred coverage for 215,000 homes to smaller subsidiaries. The paper warns:

When insurance companies refuse to provide coverage, the states offer bare-bones policies through insurance pools or state-run companies. But in Florida and Louisiana, the state-run companies are on the verge of collapse. In Mississippi, the officials who run the state insurance agency have told regulators they need to raise rates fivefold to remain in operation.

5)        Even down here in Southern California, hurricanes are possible. Steve Bloom (who invented the wonderfully geeky phrase "charismatic megaweather" to describe them) sent news of Hurricane Linda that almost hit Southern California in l997. But William Patzert, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says we are entering a neutral El Nino/La Nina condition he likes to call "La Nada," in which trade winds disrupt the formation of potential hurricanes, and–courtesy of the EarthSky program–posts a picture for those of us who need to see things to remember them:


And my meterological pal Brad sends along a wonderful chart of hurricane activity in the East Pacific in l997, which shows how rare Linda was in Southern California storms.


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

3 thoughts on “Catching Up to Hurricane Season

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