Some tips for weathering hurricane season

Come June 1, the 2014 Hurricane Season begins. Although it is forecasted to be a mild season due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation phenomenon and relatively cool water temperatures, it only takes one major hurricane to detrimentally impact both coastal and inland communities – causing destruction to property, the crippling economic burden of rebuilding and loss of life. In preparation for the upcoming hurricane season, it is imperative that people understand the shortcomings of the hurricane categorization scale, as well as the underestimated hazards associated with hurricanes. These hazards include the impact of storm surge, inland flooding and death by falling trees.

It’s no secret that the Saffir-Simpson scale misses the mark when it comes to hurricane hazard communication. Categorizing a hurricane into one of five possibilities – when in fact no two storms have ever been the same – could quite possibly be the definition of insanity. This is especially the case when the Saffir-Simpson scale bases a hurricane’s intensity on wind speed and ultimately off-shore characteristics. These characteristics immediately change the moment a storm begins to make landfall and dynamically reacts with a unique landscape and coastal profile. Therefore, off-shore wind speed is generally not enough information to profile a storm’s characteristics or level of intensity. This may lead you to ask the question: If the Saffir-Simpson scale is not enough, how then do I prepare for a hurricane? The answer to this question differs depending on whether you live on the coast or inland.

On the coast, one of the most underestimated hurricane hazards is storm surge. Along with the Saffir-Simpson scale, there are a couple of storm factors a person must take into account when making evacuation/hurricane preparedness decisions. These two factors are storm size and speed. A very large, slow-moving storm is the worst kind of hurricane with regard to the impact of storm surge. This kind of storm pushes a much larger volume of water, and, depending upon the location of landfall, storm surge can be not only extremely high but also extremely penetrative – reaching farther inland than expected. On the contrary, a small, fast-moving storm will have a smaller storm surge. This can be seen with Hurricane Charlie, which made landfall in Florida as a small but fast Category 4 storm. Its storm surge ranged from six to eight feet – this is laughable in comparison to Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm, which produced a 20-foot storm surge. The difference was storm size, speed and shape of the coastline at landfall.

Inland, the Saffir-Simpson scale no longer applies. At this point, the storm will have lost power and start to deteriorate, causing destructive rainfall, wind gusts, and tornadoes. It is very important to remember that hurricanes affect the inland just as much as the coast and generally raise the death toll. According to Jeffery Czajkowski’s 2011 research, most inland fatalities were caused by freshwater drowning, and that for every one inch of rainfall, the lethality of a storm increases by 28 percent. On top of deaths due to drowning from inland flooding, a surprising number of people perish from toppling trees. This is a hazard for which warnings are rarely issued, but definitely a danger one should keep in mind around wind-damaged trees.

So this hurricane season, make sure you keep a watchful eye on the Tropics and make the necessary preparations – regardless of whether you live on the coast or inland. It just may save your life.

Sarah Cunningham is a junior majoring in environmental science.

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