Here’s why it’s important to pay attention when tropical storms are a threat

Storms, hurricanes can rapidly intensify before landfall

A hurricane blows in on a Florida beach.
A hurricane blows in on a Florida beach. (Image by David Mark from Pixabay.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – One of the themes of the last couple of hurricane seasons has been the rapid intensification of these storms. Of greater concern is where these storms are rapidly intensifying.

We have seen this a lot over the past couple of years. You’re following the forecast and preparing for a tropical storm or low-end hurricane. Then, you wake up one morning and all of a sudden, you have a major Category 3 or greater hurricane inbound with little time to prepare for the heightened threat.

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It’s not just that these storms can intensify rapidly, but it’s that they are doing so, in some cases, hours before landfall.

Michael, Harvey and Laura. Very different storms with one thing in common: All rapidly intensified shortly before landfall. The results were catastrophic for the Panhandle, devastating for Texas and destructive for Louisiana. All proved deadly.

“And this is what catches people off guard. I wish there was some magic wand we could precisely tell you exactly where the hurricane is going to go and how strong it is going to be four days before landfall, but that’s not scientifically possible,” said Jamie Rhome with the National Hurricane Center.

Rhome specializes in storm surge for the National Hurricane Center.

“People have to think how well they are equipped to handle a rapid intensifier. If it’s Category 1 and everyone is taking a laissez-faire approach. Let’s say it suddenly rapidly intensifies into a Cat. 3, will you have the time to respond and in most cases the answer is no and so that’s why you have to take it seriously,” Rhome said.

The more intense the storm, the more devastating the storm surge. That damage isn’t just a threat for people right along the coast.

“Wind is just something that’s more intuitive whereas the ocean moving inland tens of miles and invading your home, that’s something that few people rarely witness with their own eyes and so it becomes hard to understand and it becomes harder to trust someone like me when I tell you that it can happen because you’re trying to validate that guidance with your own experiences and we don’t have your own experience to draw from,” Rhome said.

And tens of thousands of people flocking to Florida each year have no experience at all with tropical storms and hurricanes, adding to the challenge for forecasters and emergency planners.

“First and foremost is it increases the logistical complexities of an evacuation if needed. The amount of time it takes to evacuate a community goes up and that forces the predictions to be more accurate, greater and greater lead times so the science will have to hustle, if you will, to keep up with the population boom. We are experiencing that as we speak,” Rhome said.

Rapid intensification is defined as a maximum sustained wind increase of 35 mph in a 24-hour period. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 still holds that record in the Atlantic, strengthening to a ridiculous 105 mph in just 24 hours.

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