At Large : What’s the story this year
Hurricane preparedness, rules number one and two. First, visit Weather Underground or whatever weather prognosticator you favor. Look for the severe weather, North Atlantic forecast section. This year, at mid-September, you're entitled to a sigh of relief.
Today, if you visit the weather page, you'll find that three modest lows are bedeviling the Gulf of Mexico, and tropical storm Humberto is moving north in the mid-Atlantic uncertain about what to do next. Humberto harbors no evil intentions toward us. Nothing else significant is happening in the east-west glide path for hurricanes beginning as dust storms swirling from the west coast of Africa into the Atlantic. Residents of the East Coast of the U.S. keep a wary eye on the tropics throughout the summer and fall, and they should, because the pre-hurricane season forecasts broadcast in the spring each year are terrifically imprecise, almost never right. New Englanders must be vigilant, particularly in August and September.
The predictions released before the June 1 start of the hurricane season this year foresaw a very busy few months. But, of course, the forecasters don't know what's going to happen. They just think they can come close. Why they commit to forecasting the anticipated goings on in a future six-month period is a mystery of misbegotten faith.
Last year, they wrote, adjusting their earlier expectations, "Although we got off to a fast start in 2012, we feel that the heart of the season will be much less active than the last two, as an El Nino event continues to mature slowly and provide an unfavorable environment for tropical development." That was a July revision, written by Dr. Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist for Weather Services International (WSI), a part of The Weather Channel Companies. Sounds a touch deflated, doesn't he?
This year, in August, NOAA updated its forecast for the June through November 2013 season, saying that it might not be so busy as they thought, but active and possibly dangerous still.
The forecast still imagines three to five big hurricanes blowing more than 110 mph and 13 to 19 named storms before December 1.
The forecasters are not throwing in the towel yet. And, of course, we shouldn't either. But, the likelihood that we'll be pestered by 12 named storms, six of them becoming hurricanes, and three of them important, damaging storms has diminished.
"Make no bones about it, those ranges indicate a lot of activity still to come," said
lead seasonal hurricane forecaster Gerry Bell of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center
in College Park, Maryland. "We're coming to the peak of hurricane season now."
The forecasts count on a busier-than-normal season because of global climate patterns, because the North Atlantic is warm, because the wind is blowing east to west, and because it's been rainy in Africa. An anticipated but delinquent contributor is La Nina, the cooling in the Pacific. Last year it was a delinquent El Nino.
But, you can draw your own conclusions, if you watch carefully and constantly. You'll know when something is about to happen, which is, after all what you need to know. And, looking ahead on a day-by-day basis is something forecasters do very well. An estimate of six months of weather ahead — certain to miss the mark to a greater or lesser extent — has mainly entertainment value. What the forecasters are good at is letting you know what is happening in real time. Watching carefully, you'll know long before the big blow approaches.
When a big storm does develop and seems to have us in mind, there's a map available on The Times weather site that presents a tracking forecast for up to five days ahead. It's interesting but, like 10-year budget forecasts by Congress or the White House, or the touts for pretty fillies in the seventh at Santa Anita, or global warming forecasts, or market timing advice by stock brokers, it's not something on which you want to place a big bet.
This time of the year, as summer expires and fall pretends to be summer's cousin, read "A Wind to Shake the World: The Story of the 1938 Hurricane," by Everett S. Allen (Little, Brown and Company, 1976). It's out of print, but not undiscoverable.
Everett Allen began work as a reporter for the New Bedford Standard Times on Sept. 21, 1938, the day the granddaddy of East Coast hurricanes traveled murderously north and east along the Atlantic seaboard, smashing everything in its path. That great storm made an impression on the young reporter who lived on the Vineyard but had mainland ambitions.
The story of the 1938 hurricane was a perfect match for his considerable storytelling skills.
A display at the Martha's Vineyard Museum documents the havoc that unheralded and nameless hurricane caused on Martha's Vineyard. Everett Allen's book testifies in detail to that calamity.
"In Edgartown," Allen writes, "the tide rose until it flooded summer homes along the harbor front. Piers were under water, fences went adrift, and so did boathouses and boats. Captain Fred Vidler, keeper of the harbor light, said that at least twenty and probably more boats of various sizes went out past the lighthouse in the tide. Seven or eight were battered against the lighthouse bridge, a number sank, with only their masts visible, and the Chappaquiddick ferry lay shattered. Water rose halfway to the eaves of the Edgartown Yacht Club; within, the piano was afloat."
But the best part of Allen's book is not his description of the storm or the mess it made of the coast. That's the stuff we commonly see on television these days as it happens, although it's mostly wind-whipped tree footage and not floating pianos. And Allen's prose does not resemble the bare and qualified language of the weather forecasters. Instead, Allen, in a conversation with Thomas P.F. Hoving, then the director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and a summer resident, documents the unique smell of a big hurricane.
"'I remember the smell of the eye of the hurricane,' Hoving said. 'It smelled like six billion air-conditioning sets dispensing ozone.'"
In 1938, Hoving was seven. His mother thought he would be safest under a card table.
"'That was where my mother put us while the hurricane was going on,'" the grownup Hoving told Allen. "'To keep us children calm, she put two or three card tables together and laid blankets over them, and my sister was instructed to tell us all the ghost stories she knew. She stretched the one about the screaming skull over about three hours. We were so scared of her ghost stories we forgot about being scared of the storm till it was all over. When the smell went away and the storm had subsided, we went out to see what damage it had done.'"
Describing his persistent, intrusive research for his book, Allen wrote, "For two years, I have forced myself — and countless others — to see again the sick color of the sky and sea on that day, to hear the scream of the wind, which was everywhere; to confront anew the shocking, instant obliteration of what had always been assumed permanent, mile upon mile of man's work reduced to rubble.... I have made people weep by asking them to remember what for many of them remains their most terrible day."
Allen understood, as we should, that a hurricane, hostile to confident forecasting as it may be, is no small thing.
A version of this column appeared in this space in September of 2006.