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Hurricanes and Coastal Storms
Why Cover Hurricanes?
Hurricanes are among the most violent storms people suffer in the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic states. They are news before they happen, while they are happening, and sometimes for years after they happen.
Some hurricanes, like Hurricane Andrew, are mostly wind events. Others carry their punch with water. Last year’s Hurricane Floyd was such a water event -- unleashing torrents of muddy, polluted water upon thousands of people in North Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey.
Born far out in the Atlantic, Floyd generated winds topping 135 knots as it advanced upon the southeast U.S. coast September 13, 1999. After menacing Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, Floyd made landfall near Cape Fear, North Carolina, on September 16 with sustained winds near 110 mph. The maximum storm surge struck at high tide, contributing to extensive overwash, dune retreat, and damage to homes on barrier islands.
The water dumped by Floyd was devastating. Rainfall totaled a record 15 to 20 inches. Storm surges reached 10 feet in coastal North Carolina. This rain fell on lands still saturated from Hurricane Dennis less than two weeks earlier, and runoff was greater because water could not soak in. A month later, Hurricane Irene dumped another 5-10 inches of new rain on some of the areas hardest by Floyd.
Floyd killed 57 people -- the deadliest U.S. hurricane since Agnes in 1972. Most of those killed drowned in North Carolina as rivers unable to handle the deluge swelled beyond known flood plains. Damage estimates topped $3 billion to $6 billion.
Even though hurricanes are a normal late-summer visitor to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Floyd taught savage lessons about expecting the unexpected. Beyond the lives lost and the homes and businesses destroyed, Floyd’s flood waters killed 100,000 hogs in North Carolina, and washed out many of the huge lagoons where hog wastes were kept. Waters overflowed municipal wastewater systems, chemical storage areas, and farms. Nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria, viruses, pesticides, heavy metals, ammonia, and fuel oil all poisoned the waters.
Last year’s hurricanes also left ugly scars on the east coast. While Hurricane Dennis was not a particularly strong storm, its week-long meandering off the coast, battering the shoreline with huge waves, produced some of the highest wave run-up ever recorded along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, changing the coastal geology of that area. Dunes, the first line of defense against the mighty power of the ocean, were washed away, destroying roads and making homes, businesses, and lives along the fragile, but popular coastline, especially vulnerable.
Hurricanes are worth covering because they hit people where they live. The triple whammy of Dennis-Floyd-Irene damaged roughly 40,000 homes -- some 10,000 of them beyond repair.
1. Once a hurricane hits your region, you will probably not be hurting for story ideas. But here are some before- and after-hurricane story ideas.
2. What should coastal residents be doing to prepare for a hurricane? Structures? Supplies? Communication? Evacuation?
3. What hurricane disaster plans are already in effect by local and state governments? Are those plans up-to-date and adequate? What should the public know about them? Are roads and bridges adequate for evacuation?
4. What were the "lessons learned" locally from the last hurricane? Have they been applied? Sept. 8-9, 2000, is the 100th anniversary of the Galveston hurricane, which was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. What were the lessons learned from Galveston?
5. Has your community qualified for flood insurance? What are the details of your community’s "floodplain management ordinance?" What do your local zoning laws and building codes require?
6. Has development taken place locally in vulnerable areas? Beach homes and businesses on barrier islands? Homes and industries in flood plains? Areas vulnerable to storm surge? How does the geology of your area affect flood plains? Barrier islands?
7. What will happen to your community’s drinking water and sewage treatment systems during catastrophic storms and flooding? Are they in flood plains? How long might they be out? How hard will it be to get them back on line? What alternative water sources are available? What would happen to chlorine tanks in a flood?
8. What special hazards in your area could be affected by a hurricane -- including accompanying rain, flooding, storm surge, tornadoes, and flying debris? Petrochemical plants? Fuel storage? Nuclear power plants? Unstable landforms prone to landslides or mudflows? New communities or densely populated areas like those affected by Hurricane Andrew in South Florida?
9. What natural resources are at risk? Parks and wildlife areas? Sensitive breeding grounds for threatened and endangered species? How will massive quantities of floodwaters affect aquatic life in bays, rivers, and estuaries in your area?
10. What does the latest and best research say about the possible effect of global climate change on the frequency and intensity of hurricanes? How about the effects of the El Niño/La Niña cycle? How has long-range and short-range forecasting of hurricanes changed in the past decades? What does more preparation time mean for local emergency managers and businesses?
11. How costly are evacuations? Does better forecasting of landfall mean that fewer people are likely to lose money or be hurt in evacuations? What are the trade-offs between early evacuation and loss of dollars, especially in tourist areas?
12. How have hurricanes changed coastal landforms in your area in the past? How might they be expected to do so in the future? What do they build and what do they destroy? How is fish and wildlife habitat affected? How do human changes to the land affect its response to hurricanes?
Background and Context
"Hurricane" is the name given to the tropical cyclones with winds above 74 mph that hit the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. Such storms draw their energy from the warm surface layer of tropical seas. As air warmed and moistened by the sea rises, it whirls into a vortex often hundreds of miles across. Perhaps only a third of the hurricanes that form will actually strike land. Hurricane winds can be violently destructive. Winds are 131-155 mph for storms ranked category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale -- which are unusually intense. Winds go even higher for category 5 hurricanes, which are extremely rare. Hurricane winds can whip up waves of 50 feet or higher in the open sea. Convection creates an area of low pressure in the center of the vortex. This low-pressure area, along with high winds, creates a bulge-like rise in local sea level known as a storm surge. Storm surges are greatest on the right front side of the hurricane in the Northern hemisphere as water is pushed ahead of the storm. Severe storm surges can deliver a 20-foot or greater rise in sea level -- and when this is combined with a high lunar tide and the pounding of enormous waves, the damage can be devastating.
A key to saving the human lives at risk in hurricanes is accurate, timely warning and evacuation. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed some 6,000 people largely because there was no warning system. The U.S. National Weather Service and related NOAA agencies have made enormous strides in measuring, understanding, and predicting hurricanes in recent decades -- leading to much more effective warnings.
But even as improved warnings have been reducing deaths in the U.S., hurricane damage to property has been rising. This is not from any worsening of hurricane frequency or intensity but because of burgeoning population growth and building development in vulnerable coastal areas.
A recent study estimated that there are 338,000 buildings within 500 feet of the nation’s coastlines. The FEMA study estimates that some 87,000 homes and other structures in that zone -- more than a quarter of the total -- are threatened by the erosion that severe coastal storms bring. About 60 million people live in coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Despite some colossal disasters, climatologists say the past three decades have probably been a period of lower-than-normal hurricane activity (although it has been higher than normal in the last five years). Most current residents moved to coastal areas during this period of low hurricane activity, and NOAA estimates that 80 to 90 percent of them have never experienced a direct strike from a major hurricane. The result may be a false sense of security -- not only affecting decisions on where to build and settle, but also affecting decisions on whether and when to evacuate.
The torrential rains that accompany hurricanes can often drop 6-12 inches of water in a very short time on areas far inland. In the last 30 years, inland flooding has been responsible for more than half the deaths associated with tropical cyclones in the United States.
Floods like the ones that came with Floyd illustrate the secondary hazards hurricanes can bring. In North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey, floods brought additional threats of infection and ecological havoc. Storm surges and the incessant pounding by waves changed the coastline of North Carolina for years. In Honduras, the rains from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 unleashed a series of deadly landslides. Once they reach land, hurricanes may spawn tornadoes even as their maximum sustained winds are dying down.
- Do the news media play a role that encourages loss of life by covering ... or even celebrating, the old folks and die-hards who refuse to evacuate?
- Do news agencies contribute to the lives lost when cars drive through flooded areas by showing other people doing that highly risky activity on television?
- Do news media promote needless property loss (and taxpayer subsidies) by playing up federal disaster aid after a storm, but giving scant attention to flood insurance and flood plain management before storms hit?
- Has your news organization given as much thought as the National Hurricane Center has to balancing the risks of "overwarning" and "underwarning" (see http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hurfam.pdf)? Could a false sense of security caused by unfulfilled warnings cause people to die in the next hurricane?
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center, etc.)
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (disaster relief and flood insurance)
- U.S. Geological Survey
- State public safety, disaster, and insurance agencies
- Local emergency responders (fire, police, rescue, etc).
Sources on the Web ... and Phone Contacts
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A wide array of NOAA agencies collects data and does research relevant to hurricanes and coastal storms (http://www.noaa.gov). NOAA Public Affairs lists many press contacts at http://www.publicaffairs.noaa.gov/reporters.html. Phone: (202) 482-6090.
- The National Weather Service has a substantial central press office and a system of regional press offices as well. Press Contacts: Curtis Carey, John Leslie, Susan Weaver. Phone: (301) 713-0622 The NWS Warnings & Forecasts page neatly packages all sorts of weather-related warnings (http://www.nws.noaa.gov/pa/). The NWS also maintains a Hurricane Watch page at http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hurrwtch.htm, which collects storm tracking and background information for members of Congress and government agencies.
- The National Hurricane Center/Tropical Prediction Center (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/) is the operational nerve center for tracking and warning during an actual hurricane. Press contact: Frank Lepore, (305) 229-4404, email@example.com. NHC maintains a great collection of links at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutlink.html.
- The US Geological Survey is an excellent source of information on coastal geology, erosion, flooding, landslides and water quality. USGS maintains a network of 7,000 real-time streamflow gages (online at http://water.usgs.gov/realtime.html) which can help you track flooding as it happens. USGS is also the principal scientific agency investigating the interactions between coastal storms and coastal ecosystems, hydrologic systems, and landforms. For example, the agency studies how barrier islands are damaged by hurricanes and how those same barrier islands protect the mainland from hurricane impacts. Studies include everything from wetlands, vegetation, and sand circulation to flooding and landslides. Many are listed at http://www.usgs.gov/hurricanes.html and http://coastal.er.usgs.gov/hurricanes/, and USGS has a good set of links at http://coastal.er.usgs.gov/hurricanes/links.html. Press contact: Butch Kinerney, 703-648-4732, firstname.lastname@example.org or Marion Fisher, 703-648-4583, email@example.com.
- FEMA focuses mainly on preventing and mitigating damage from tropical storms, and on disaster aid when they do occur (http://www.fema.gov/fema/trop.htm). FEMA Hurricane Fact Sheet: http://www.fema.gov/library/hurricaf.htm. Hurricane Backgrounder http://www.fema.gov/library/hurrica.htm. Complete list of FEMA press contacts by subject and region at http://www.fema.gov/media/paolist.htm. FEMA headquarters public affairs: (202) 646-4600. FEMA maintains a photo desk and video library.
- Dr. Gray’s Forecast. Prof. William M. Gray at Colorado State University is the unofficial but acknowledged Guru of Atlantic seasonal hurricane prediction. His forecasts are online at http://tropical.atmos.colostate.edu/forecasts/. Press contacts: David Weymiller and Thomas Milligan, (970) 491-6432).
- FAQ: Hurricanes, Typhoons and Tropical Cyclones. Everything you ever need to know about hurricanes, based on the best science and written in plain English, by Christopher W. Landsea of NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami. Online at http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/tcfaq/tcfaqHED.html, or contact (305) 361-4357, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission. Published in Environment Writer newsletter July/August 2000, by the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center.