After the Eye of the Storm
Alan Sealls, NWA President
Hurricane Michael was devastating and deadly—a storm that put operational meteorologists to the test not just in forecasting, but also in communicating threats. Thanks in part to spot-on landfall forecast position and timing from the National Hurricane Center and Hurricane Local Statements from NWS offices, I, as a broadcast meteorologist, was able to relay the most likely scenario to my viewers and social media followers. My broadcast area is centered on Mobile, Alabama, just west of Panama City, Florida, so we were spared.
The day before landfall, I was bombarded with this question on social media: “When will it turn?” I’m often asked to explain something that people hear somewhere else. I still haven’t figured out if there were debates on social media about a hard turn like that of Hurricane Irma toward Florida, or if this was related to some off-the-cuff comment made by a broadcaster. I spent too much time and energy with that question, taking away from more critical safety information I wanted to impart. It seemed like there were a lot of armchair meteorologists on social media watching and opining as though it were a sporting event. Without a doubt, there were people in the Florida side of my viewing area, closer to Destin and Pensacola, who were highly concerned that the lack of a turn would have put them in the eyewall.
The damage and loss of life from Hurricane Michael was sad but not unexpected for such a powerful storm. My references are Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ivan. I got a first-hand look at Hurricane Michael aftermath inland on a journey from Mobile to Tallahassee on Interstate 10. Heading eastward from Crestview, Florida, the damage went from insignificant to many snapped pine trees and tree blowdowns pointing southward east of Defuniak Springs. Marianna showed the signature of trees knocking down power lines with damage in every neighborhood. A dozen miles east of Marianna, I saw trees fallen in a crisscross pattern, indicating east winds from the northern eyewall followed by west winds from the southern eyewall. Another dozen miles to the east and the fallen trees were pointing northward.
My west to east travel transect of the fallen tree directions, if plotted on a line, would resemble a meteogram of veering wind. Fascinating for an impromptu damage survey driving at 70 mph. I did stop in a few towns. Common in each were debris piles, slack and broken electric lines, utility crews, blue tarps, the grinding noise of tractors and heavy machinery, the wail of chainsaws, and the smell of pine. A major disruption and cost to families, communities and businesses to say the least.
We know the cycle of aid, cleanup, looting, utility restoration, rebuilding, updating building codes, and changes in insurance that typically follow such events, as do questions. Will these smaller communities ever fully recover? How might initial landfall forecasts of a possible Category 1 have played into people’s decision-making? Did climate change energize the hurricane? Why did many models initially miss the eventual strengthening? What could the Weather Enterprise and the public have done better?
I want to hear your perspective at next year’s National Weather Association annual meeting, September 7–12, in Huntsville, Alabama. If you had responsibility for any of the landscape or entities impacted by Hurricane Michael or Hurricane Florence or any other significant weather event past or to come, your experience and insight will be valuable to attendees. You can also submit a special article for the NWA Newsletter while things are fresh in your mind, volunteer to present your experience at one of our monthly webinars, and submit more in-depth method descriptions and research findings in an article for the Journal of Operational Meteorology.
Help the NWA shine a spotlight on colleagues and groups who have made great contributions to operational meteorology in weather events like Hurricane Michael or several events throughout the year(s). Nominate these people for an NWA award so they can be recognized. The NWA bestows more than a dozen awards annually.
After Hurricane Michael, national media focused on one fortified home standing alone in a section of Mexico Beach. In damage videos, I noted many other isolated homes standing. The lesson is obvious: build better, build smarter. We can mitigate loss with homes and structures and communities designed for the possible perils in all regions whether they are flood, surge, wind, lightning, tornado, extreme snow, wildfire, landslide, earthquake, tsunami, or even volcanoes.
Hurricane Michael is a metaphor for life, business, and associations like NWA: prepare for upheaval, extremes and uncertainties, but follow accepted rules and the advice of professionals while doing so. With the recent approval of the NWA Bylaws, we are building a better and stronger NWA. The decisions we make now play into our resilience as an association later. This month we are voting for next year’s new officers. Let’s prepare and keep on making each other and society stronger with weather science knowledge.
Fig 1: Trees down near Grand Ridge, Florida (photo taken by Alan Sealls)
Fig 2: Trees down near a church in Marianna, Florida (photo taken by Alan Sealls)
Fig 3: Snapped trees near Marianna, Florida (photo taken by Alan Sealls)
Fig 4: Blue tarps on a building in Marianna, Florida (photo taken by Alan Sealls)
Radar fig: Radar image on October 10, 2018, at 2015 UTC (image from NOAA Centers for Environmental Information, formerly NCDC)