Category 5 Hurricanes and the Florida Keys

Like the rest of the nation I’m watching Hurricane Irma chew its way through the Caribbean on its way to a forecasted landfall somewhere on Southern Florida Saturday morning. A few years ago, while bonefishing out of Islamorada, I spotted a memorial off of US Route 1 at mile marker 81.5. I pulled over, my rental car smelling like a fisherman’s underwear thanks to the box of shrimp I forgot in the trunk the night before, and took a closer look.

islamorada_fl_hurricane_memorial03

It was a simple memorial to those who died in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The plaque read:

Hurricane_Monument_Plaque_1935

Being a hurricane nerd I went digging and found this essay by Ernest Hemingway, who was fond of the Keys and had a home in Key West at the end of the archipelago. He had traveled to the Keys after the storm on assignment from a magazine, and filed an indignant report because of what had happened to a crew of workers — mostly World War One veterans — who hadn’t been able to escape the storm’s fury. I cite this only because it gives a sense of how exposed the Keys are to a direct hit, and how devastated the islands were on September 3, 1935, when the islands were submerged in a maelstrom and people were forced into the trees to tie themselves down. Hemingway wrote:

“Whom did they annoy and to whom was their possible presence a political danger?’

“Who sent them down to the Florida Keys and left them there in hurricane months?

“Who is responsible for their deaths?

“The writer of this article lives a long way from Washington and would not know the answers to those questions. But he does know that wealthy people, yachtsmen, fishermen such as President Hoover and President Roosevelt, do not come to the Florida Keys in hurricane months. Hurricane months are August, September and October, and in those months you see no yachts along the Keys. You do not see them because yacht owners know there would be great danger, unescapable danger, to their property if a storm should come. For the same reason, you cannot interest any very wealthy people in fishing of the coast of Cuba in the summer when the biggest fish are there. There is a known danger to property. But veterans, especially the bonus-marching variety of veterans, are not property. They are only human beings; unsuccessful human beings, and all they have to lose is their lives. They are doing coolie labor for a top wage of $45 a month and they have been put down on the Florida Keys where they can’t make trouble. It is hurricane months, sure, but if anything comes up, you can always evacuate them, can’t you?

“…It is not necessary to go into the deaths of the civilians and their families since they were on the Keys of their own free will; they made their living there, had property and knew the hazards involved. But the veterans had been sent there; they had no opportunity to leave, nor any protection against hurricanes; and they never had a chance for their lives.

“Who sent nearly a thousand war veterans, many of them husky, hard-working and simply out of luck, but many of them close to the border of pathological cases, to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys in hurricane months?

“Why were the men not evacuated on Sunday, or, at latest, Monday morning, when it was known there was a possibility of a hurricane striking the Keys and evacuation was their only possible protection? Who advised against sending the train from Miami to evacuate the veterans until four-thirty o’clock on Monday so that it was blown off the tracks before it ever reached the lower camps?”

The hurricane was the first of three Category 5 storms to hit Florida (the other two being Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992). A cat 5 storm has sustained winds over 157 mph and obliterates everything it hits. When the 1935 storm hit the Keys it pushed a storm surge 20 feet high over some of the upper Keys, completely submerging them. Although a train was sent down the Keys to evacuate the veterans working on a highway project, it came too late and was overwhelmed by the waters.

train_derailed_by_the_1935_hurricane

About 500 people died on the Keys because of that Labor Day storm, but others estimate the death toll was higher, just as other speculated the death toll from Andrew in 1992 was much higher than officially reported because of the presence of undocumented migrant laborers who were killed and blown into the Everglades. Whatever the toll, the devastation was complete and the aftermath very macabre, with mass cremations of the death occurring in the days that followed.

cremation_of_hurricane_victims2c_snake_creek2c_sept-_72c_1935

Godspeed to Florida this weekend.

 

 

The wisdom of names

My friend thinks the The Weather Channel’s decision to start naming winter storms (the latest of course being “Nemo”) is brilliant in terms of a marketing move.  I disagree, preferring to grant that authority to the National Weather Service, which started naming hurricanes in the early 1950s to clarify things while reporting on the movements of multiple storms along the same coast.  Everyone is familiar with the alphabetical model that begins ever new year with the A’s and moves on up, alternating female and male names (beginning in 1979 after storms were exclusively named after women for three decade)s. Now the names are assigned by the World Meteorological Association.

Last week the Weather Channel jumped into the name game and dubbed what would otherwise be called the Blizzard of ’13, “Nemo.”  Along with their on-the-beach reporters who look so daring in their terrible L.L. Bean raincoats (I’d have a lot more respect if they were out there in real foul gear like Grundens or Henri Lloyds, L.L. Bean has mostly made crap for the last twenty years), the decision to assume the mantle of official storm-namer is pure b.s. with an gleaming eye towards grabbing more audience and eyeballs.

I’m by no means the first grumpy person to call foul and criticize TWC for such a blatantly commercial move. Other than giving the social media crowd a convenient hash-tag to tweet, naming blizzards doesn’t accomplish much in my opinion other than to reinforce the channel’s cheesy and breathless approach to each and every weather event that drives viewers to their channel.  I realize that in weather “heavy” areas of the country — I’m thinking about the Florida Keys — the Weather Channel is standard fare on most TVs in diners and bars, enough so that I’ve come to expect it while tucking into a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy turned pink with a couple blasts of Gator Hammock sauce before heading out for a day of bonefishing.

I prefer my weather straight from the official source, or as close to the source as possible. That means no Accuweather, no Weather Bug, no Weather Underground but straight to the National Weather Service which does an excellent job without resorting to advertising-aimed-at-the-elderly  for reverse mortgages and diabetes supplies that are otherwise-ignored channel’s bread and butter.  I’d rather read a professional forecast discussion written by a PhD level meteorologist  than listen to some soundbites by a cheese-dick gesticulating in front of a green screen projection of a weather map with the inevitable graphical phallus protruding from his groin. I want to compare the models, dwell on the millibars and follow the tracks and maybe actually learn something.

The Weather Channel deserves all the criticism it gets for this move. No competitor will honor their names and indeed they might start dubbing storms with names of their own (which some did). The official keepers of the weather, the NWS and the NMO don’t give snowstorms, blizzards, tornadoes, or earthquakes names because, quite simply, these events are very local, don’t affect a large swath of geography the way a cruising hurricane can, and generally don’t occur simultaneously with other events that might cause public confusion. I don’t want my natural disasters to be sponsored by Cialis.

The Atlantic Monthly has a good piece online about the absurdity of Nemo.

And in closing, the late great paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, on the futility of naming things:

“The passion for naming things is an odd human trait. It is strange that men always feel so much more at ease when they have put appellations on the things around them and that a wild, new region almost seems familiar and subdued once enough names have been used on it, even though in fact it is not changed in the slightest. Or, on second thought, it is perhaps not really strange. The urge to name must be as old as the human race, as old as speech which is one of the really fundamental characteristics by which we rise above the brutes, and thus a basic and essential part of the human spirit or soul. The naming fallacy is common enough even in science. Many a scientist claims to have explained some phenomenon when in truth all he has done is to give it a name. “

Aftermath

I was surprised to see the full moon shining through bright skies at 10 pm last night. A few rags from the remaining storm clouds scudded over the trees and the brown seed pods from the honey locust curled and crunched underfoot. All was well. We never lost electricity save for a couple micro-flickers that shut down my desktop PC, reset the satellite TVs and made all the alarm clocks blink “12:00.”

The motorboat now sits in the front yard, her bilge choked with leaves and sticks, waiting to be relaunched later this afternoon for a quick patrol of the harbor and a return to the Bald Eagle (who was fine when I last set eyes on her at 5:30 last night, right at the predicted peak of the winds). I think the actual peak at Cotuit came around 3:30 pm, when I ventured down the lane to the landing for the obligatory Churbuckian Storm Patrol (over the objections of my wife), ducking under the police barricade at the head of Old Shore Road and hurrying down the tree-lined tunnel to the boat ramp at the bottom, convinced a tree limb would come crashing down on me at any second. The winds were flowing right up the road in huge gouts of warm tropical air mixed with salt spume blown off the wave-tops in the bay. Standing on Main Street before ducking the yellow tape I could see the wind and spray blasting up and out of the intersection like a firehose of storm.

Having made the 200 meter jog without widowing my wife under a fallen Norway Maple, I joined my neighbor Steve at the boat ramp and felt the full force of Sandy head on, leaning into it,  waves breaking overthe road and washing over my boots.  A tree went down beside me, a slow lean as its roots softened in the flooded bank. The Split Ticket, a familiar catamaran, was dragging ashore a little to the south of the ramp; I imagine she’s on the mudbank this morning. But otherwise the harbor had been stripped of the last of the summer sailboats, with only a half-dozen left on their moorings to work things out on their own. A pickup truck appeared, with an overly exuberant driver jumping out and screaming into the wind, proclaiming that only a true Cape Codder would face such a storm head-on. Whatever. I don’t like the rubberneckers who clog up Old Shore Road during storms and cause traffic jams while the boat owners are trying to get their trailers down the ramp and their dinghies off the beach. Sure it’s nice to watch the storm — it’s the ultimate primitive special effect — but when the DPW and the police cordon off the road, well, respect the cordon people and watch it on television.

The best part of the scene at Ropes Beach was the big white clouds of spray the gusts would gather from the water and blow across the water in swirling 60 mph walls. The waves were little because the wind was coming overland, from the east, and there wasn’t enough fetch for the water to kick up like it did a year ago in Irene. I’d say Sandy had higher gusts that Irene and a much longer period of sustained winds in the 40s, but Sandy was much more of a nonevent because there wasn’t a summer crowd to come gawk at it, the moorings were stripped of their boats two weeks ago, and all that was left was a couple commercial fishing boats, and a few big sloops like mine. Sandy was definitely a Townie Storm.

I wanted to get a glimpse of my boat, but she was  hidden, tucked around the corner of Handy’s Point and the beach from the yacht club out to the Little River marsh was gone under the surge. I hurried back up Old Shore under the groaning and tossing canopy of trees, was amazed to see a mother with her three kids walking downhill (they need helmets, I thought), but told myself not to be a judgmental old fart and waved hello.

I marched down Main Street in my Grunden raincoat and boots to the Town Dock. The water was way into the parking lot, so I waded out to the beginning of the pier and tried to get a glimpse of the boat around Lowell’s Point, but that wasn’t possible and I wasn’t going to risk taking a wave over the boottops by walking onto the submerged dock. Funny how 54-year old brains get all cautious when the 19-year old version of me would have been out there up to my knees hanging on for dear life while trying to chug a Budweiser in the wind.

I took some phone video, saw what there was to see, and went back to the house for the car and quick drive up Old Post Road to a bluff with a good view of the Inner Harbor and the boat riding on her 2,000 pound storm mooring. A couple limbs in the streets which were slick with blown leaves and pine needles, but no big trees were down. The lights were still on at the Coop — the local grocery — and a bunch of skateboarders were hanging out in front looking unimpressed and bored.

The boat was riding very well and was perfectly situated under the lee of the bluffs around the Narrows and Grand Island. She wasn’t hobby-horsing or looking in any danger. Other than some scudding to and fro in the gusts as she took the strain on the mooring yoke across her bow, she looked like she would live to sail another season. I took a few more videos, hopped back in the car, and decided to explore the High Grounds to the south of the village center. The lights were out south of School Street and a couple utility crews and tree-surgeon trucks were at work under their bright lights. It amazes me that Cotuit– at least my part of Cotuit — kept its power through Sandy, just as it did through Irene. Bob in ’91 plunged us into a sweaty darkness of rotting refrigerators and cold water showers for what felt like a week of medieval hardship and hell. Oceanview Avenue was blocked by a fallen tree, but I found a way to Loop Beach and paused on the hill in front of the Judge’s place to look at Sampson’s Island in the failing light. The tide was high, the beach was rimmed like a margarita glass with a verge of white salt, but there were no major beach breaches or hydrological events that I could see. Loop Beach was covered with bales of washed up codium — the rubbery seaweed also called Deadman’s Fingers or Oysterthief — and some kids were playing in the wind. The light had failed, it was evening, and time to get off the roads.

I came home, declared to Daphne that the boat would live again and settled down in front of the Weather Channel to watch poor NYC get pounded. My partner Ben on the West Side texted me through the evening with updates as the Battery and West Side highway flooded, electricity began to fail, transformers exploded, and highways were closed. I am writing off any idea of returning to the office in midtown this week and will spend this morning rescheduling my appointments.

The big winner in this storm, if storm’s can said to have “winners” is the scientific models and digital information systems that identified Sandy when it was still well south of Jamaica last week. I started following the storm six days ago — on Tuesday, October 23rd thanks to an email alert from the National Hurricane Center — reviewed the various predictive models with their Monte Carlo simulations and various algorithmic preferences, historical data sets, and unique assumptions only a person familiar with things like isobars, dropsondes, shearing winds, eyewalls and thermoclines could care about.  I eavesdropped on the chatter of those professional and academic meteorologists on storm2k.org, and by Wednesday I was blogging that I had a bad feeling about this storm. For four days prior to Sandy coming ashore the professionals were predicting — with very good accuracy in turns out in day-after-highsight — the time of the landfall, the location, the intensity, the size of the surge, the estimate of the damages …. all with the usual disclaimers and qualifiers, but all right on the money down to the prediction that Sandy would break records as the largest storm in history as well as the lowest in terms of barometric pressure. The news reported by the New York Times last week that we face a gap in this kind of coverage and detection as our polar weather satellites are retired and replaced came is worrisome given that weather technology seems to have finally come into its own.

What is interesting is the concept of hype and media in storms. I think it’s human nature to get excited by the prospect of a major weather event. (It must be a genetically coded fight-or-flee kind of response that tells animals when to seek cover or cavemen to flee the surge and hide from the wind. I know the extremely low barometric pressure had a physical impact on me yesterday. I had a throbbing headache and even felt a little nauseated.) The Weather Channel — which my friend in the Keys jokes is a conspiracy owned by Home Depot — is probably the top source of information, and other than their weather studs in their silly L.L. Bean windbreakers (L.L. Bean is last place I would shop for foul weather gear) being morons on the beaches and piers, there isn’t a lot to be learned except for when some true weather scientist from the NHC is interviewed and slips into the science. NOAA and the National Weather Service did a disservice by following a semantic process and issuing confusing statements that declared Sandy was going “extra-tropical” which the mainstream media morons initially took to be a downgrade, when it fact the storm was getting stronger, just no longer meeting the technical requirements of a tropical cyclone. That’s when people around me started the usual macho bravado of proclaiming, “Ah, it’s not going to do anything. Just more hype.  I’m salty and I don’t care.”

I thought the officials in the mid-Atlantic and New York were slow to react. It appeared that Governor Cuomo stepped into the political vacuum left open by Mayor Bloomberg’s seeming insouciance (recalling his infamous advice during a blizzard that New Yorker’s relax and take in a Broadway Show) when he started making moves on Sunday with the transportation system. New Jersey is going to be pointing a lot of fingers at one another I imagine. But the existential reality of storms is this:

  1. Forecasts are imprecise and a lot of storm warnings are “chicken-little” misses.
  2. People won’t evacuate. Shelters must suck.
  3. The media loves drama. It’s all about the boat on the rocks, the waves over the breakwater, the big tree down on the car. Don’t expect your local paper to teach you about storm cones, the difference between the eastern and western quadrants, steering currents, etc. Their job is to tell you where the shelter is, what to do with injured wildlife, fill your bathtub, use flashlights and not candles, etc.
  4. All storms are different and in the end, other than the drama of nature’s fury, the real reality comes the morning after when the coffee maker is dead, the Internet is down, and you face a $5,000 wind damage deductible because your insurance company really doesn’t care about you.

Finally (enough bloviating, I have to work) the big winner was the “Euro” model — the predictive analysis model run by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. This is one of a few dozen models run by various organizations such as the National Hurricane Center to the US Navy, and according to the weather nuts, was right all along in calling the unique circumstances that make Sandy a Frankenstorm. A great resource for seeing all the “spaghetti” of the various models can be found at, of all places, the South Florida Water Management District.

I know today will reveal a lot of hurt to the west and the south. Best of luck to all in the mid-Atlantic and Tri-state areas. You probably won’t read this for another few days until the lights come back.

Sandy – two days to go

I stripped the sails and dodger off of the Bald Eagle Too yesterday, taking her into the town dock so I could back the car onto the pier and load it up with sails, canvas, cushions, pillows and bedding left over from the summer. The boom came off easily and I cut off the rigging tape from the turnbuckles, pulled some cotter pins, but left the clevises in as it looks like I am not going to get hauled and the boat will have to ride things out on a hurricane buoy in the inner harbor.

I’m not too freaked out by this one. The assistant harbormaster was on the town dock and predicted three inches of rain but prolonged conditions worst than Irene a year ago. He’s ex-Coast Guard and said his buddies at the Cape May station are staring a big one in the eye as Sandy is predicted to make a perpendicular landfall somewhere between Delaware Bay and Sandy Hook on Monday.

The discussion between the professional meteorologists on storm2k.org is generally too technical for me to follow, but a few of them are making some pretty dramatic statements about the one-of-a-kind confluence of circumstances that gives this storm the potential to really disrupt life for a lot of people in the mid-Atlantic states. When some of the professional voices in that forum start to make grave pronouncements that this is going to be a monster, I start to pay attention.

 

As of today (Saturday morning), they are in general agreement that Sandy is pulling a rope-a-dope by declining in power from a hurricane (sustained winds over 70 mph, tropical temperatures throughout) to an “extra-tropical storm” or “northeaster” as it gets sucked in a question-mark shaped course out of the usual cyclone pattern of moving from the southwest to the northeast along the Gulf Stream. A weather system coming east from the mid-west is causing the button-hook maneuver and will bring it abruptly west along the shipping lanes into New York City and the Chesapeake right into New Jersey. The professionals say it will intensify as it meets the low pressure system over Ohio and Pennsylvania, with its barometric pressure dropping potentially to a low level below that of the infamous 1938 Long Island hurricane. Low pressure means intense winds, the collision with the mid-west weather means Sandy will get held in place and start to dump a lot of rain on the Delmarva Peninsula up to NYC.

The effects on Cape Cod will be mostly wind from an extraordinarily large wind field — it looks like those winds will be hitting us from the southwest and west on Monday night through Tuesday. The reasons the forecasters sound more freaked out that usual are:

  1. The “perfect-storm” scenario of a tropical storm meeting a big low pressure system over the most heavily populated section of the US
  2. This would be one of the few storms to strike, as opposed to glance off, the shore.
  3. It is hitting on a full moon.
  4. The barometric profile in the models suggest it will come ashore with exceptionally low pressure, pushing a considerable surge in front of it as high as ten feet.
  5. The confluence means it will stall over the tri-state area and “grind” away before slipping off to the north. This means a long prolonged period of soaking rains and high winds.
  6. The trees in the mid-Atlantic are still heavy with leaves, so knock-downs are inevitable, causing power outages.
  7. The mid-west system could cause winter-like conditions later next week, a bad scenario if lots of people are without power.
  8. Some professionals are saying this could be a “4.2” out of a scale of 6.0 in terms of damages. The most hysterical are saying it will be the biggest weather event since 1938, most agree it will cause damages in the “billions” and could exceed Irene in terms of impact.

It’s gorgeous here today, so I’m off to the beach to make the most of it and to fiddle around on the boat and essentially do what I needed to do anyway later next week when the boatyard comes to haul me for the winter. I’m supposed to be at a meeting in NYC on Tuesday and other outside of Philly on Wednesday — doubting either is going to happen.

Now I’m Officially Worried About Sandy

I am not a meteorologist, but I know enough to scare myself and as soon as it’s a decent hour I’m calling Peck’s Boats to beg for a pull out on Friday or Saturday ahead of Hurricane Sandy.

Couple of factors have me spooked. First, this is a late season storm driving due north into the warmest North Atlantic in modern record keeping. According to my yachting associate Charles Barthold, water temperatures are 5+ degrees higher than normal around the Northeast and warm water is the energy source for storm systems. Second, there is a big low pressure system moving east to meet Sandy from the midwest. This looks like it will “grab” the storm and pull it back towards the northeast, hooking it onto Cape Cod in a classic northeaster scenario. This is, indeed, a repeat of the “Perfect Storm” scenario that whacked the Cape on Halloween, 1991. I remember that storm and it was a pisser.

The CMC OZ  model below (click through to animate it – press the “+1” button to step through it) gives a good predictive illustration of the button-hook maneuver Sandy could pull on the Northeast. This is one of a dozen models, so take it for what it is, but it gives an idea of the weird way this storm could behave at the last second.

I am normally not a believer in the wisdom of the crowds, but the discussions at storm2k.org are very informative and give a good range of random weather geeks’ opinions.

So the plan is to get out NYC today around noon, use tomorrow to strip sails, dodgers and other random parts and pieces and begin to assume that Peck’s can’t get me out in time, in which case I’ll trust to my mooring which saw me through Irene in 2011.

 

 

Big data visualization beauty

I marvel at the art of visually representing quantitative data. There have been some excellent examples over the time. I used to be particularly obsessed with Smartmoney’s heat map of the stock market which blew a lot of minds in the late 1990s, and went out of my way to try to recruit the genius who came up with it into Forbes.com (with no success). Today it seems so static and Web 1.0, but still, cavemen used to be freaked out by fire, imagine what they would do with a Bic lighter?

Uncle Fester, the collector of all that is interesting, sent me a link to a very cool wind map.  Meteorological maps are generally fairly dull and impenetrable, with their own symbolic language of isobars, beaufort scales, and occluded fronts. Indeed, weather has long been considered one of the greatest data challenges. Consider that for decades the standard was something like this:

 Not very friendly to the layman, more the sort of thing a pilot or professional could read and derive some sense of the future from. Wind is personally the single most interesting element of a weather forecast. As a former sailboat racer, I’d obsess over the probability of a wind shift occurring during a race, or, plan ahead on whether or not to take a crew to help hold the boat down if the breeze increased in velocity. Too much weight and I’d lose. Too little weight and I’d be screwed trying to keep the boat flat in the gusts.

Here’s what wind maps used to look like:

And here is what they look like today. This is beautiful and very addictive to play with. I highly recommend clicking through to see this in all of its animated glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And sorry, but I can’t forget this classic:

Cotuit Crocuses in February

The biggest spring “harbinger” cliche is the annual photo the Cape Cod Times publishes of a gorgeous blanket of purple crocuses (croci) in front of some quaint old Cape house on Route 6A — the Old King’s Highway — in Cummaquid. This photo usually runs in March. Last week the Times ran a photo of some confused daffodils blooming in Orleans.

This past weekend I took the dog for a stroll and to my surprise, spotted these two brave blooms — during the first week of February. Every fall, when I bury the tulip bulbs, I always plant another set of crocuses out along Main Street. The photo below is of a batch planted three years ago.

My garlic has already sprouted in the garden, the parsley and rosemary are still going strong, and groundhog’s shadow be damned, it would seem the Cape might actually have a real spring again this year. The downside is the house is infested with flies — I guess some critter expired under the shop and the warm temperatures are … well, you can guess. I roam the house with the electric tennis racket/swatter in hand. I have a serious aversion to flies.