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Mad Mariner stories

Originally published March 6, 2008, on MadMariner.com
Surviving A Hurricane

Whatever the Hurricane Forecast for 2008 Brings, Boaters Can Start Preparing Now

By Pamela Coyle
ORLANDO – With the last two Atlantic hurricane seasons relatively quiet for the U.S. coast, you might think that weather experts, marina owners and insurance companies would be happy. But they’re not.

In fact, the quiet is what worries them. Not because it portends a big one – despite the science behind predicting the number of named storms each year, no one can predict where they’ll make landfall – but because the perceived lull may make coastal residents complacent.

After two years without a major hurricane, some may forget the damage wrought by storms like Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

“Our biggest fear is that there will be a warning, you’ll evacuate, it will be a pain in the butt, nothing happens,” says Steve Letro, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, Fla. “Then there’ll be a second warning, you’ll evacuate, and it will be a pain in the butt but nothing happens. Time three you don’t evacuate – and you get hit.”

At the two-day BoatU.S. Hurricane Preparation Symposium here, much of the talk centered on the need for boat and marina owners to stay prepared, regardless of the predictions for the pending hurricane season.

Collective memory is short, the experts say, and the pain of the 2004 and 2005 seasons, when Katrina, Rita and other storms punished U.S. cities, is already foggy history for too many boaters. But Katrina alone caused roughly $750 million in damage to recreational boats and destroyed 75 percent of the matinas along the 150 miles of Gulf Coast, according to estimates by BoatUS.

“It really doesn’t matter how many storms there are,” Letro says. “Last year, we had 15 named storms. It was busy season, including two Category 5 hurricanes. How much did we hear in the U.S? Not much – but don’t tell that to the people in Central America.”


For what it is worth – and Letro says it’s not much – early predictions for the 2008 hurricane season, which officially starts June 1, show 13 named storms and seven hurricanes, including three major ones.

The probability for a landfall on the U.S. coastline is 60 percent, a bit higher than the average of 52 percent for the last 100 years.

Letro’s annual presentation, which focuses on major weather events and their prediction, is always a big hit at the symposium, which ended yesterday. His major point at last year’s conference was that we are in a period of unusually active and strong tropical cyclone activity – and such cycles generally last 25 to 40 years.

This year, an equally clear message came through: Hurricane forecasting is limited by inherent error and for those on coasts, the bigger area covered by a storm warning is far more important that what is commonly called smaller “cone of death” that estimates the probability of a strike.

A storm’s path is driven by many factors, and “steering currents” are among the hardest to pin down. That accounts for much of the forecasting error, Letro says.

Take two real-life examples from 2005: Hurricanes Wilma and Ophelia. Prediction in one case was successful while less so in the other. The steering currents driving Hurricane Wilma were well defined, and all the track models showed the storm would move toward the Yucatan and then curve back across the southern part of Florida. And that’s just what happened.

“If the stream is well-defined and in the middle, the storm will be pretty easy to predict,” Letro says. “With Wilma, the timing was off but the forecast itself was very, very good.”

Earlier that season, Ophelia was different. The steering currents were not as defined, and the forecast tracks over time resembled what Letro and his colleagues call “the squashed spider syndrome.”

“The forecasts were all over the place,” he says.

Of course, the science of forecasting has improved over time.

The National Weather Service and hurricane experts are trying, with some success, to decrease the typical wide warning area. Errors in determining the location where a hurricane is likely to strike, for example, are getting smaller by about one mile a year, Letro says. In fact, the error rate has been cut in half in the last 15 years.
Still, a tropical storm is an individual, not a model, and every one is different. A storm on a perpendicular track toward a coastline is easier to call than one coming in at an angle.

“We understand the physics,” Letro says. “But trying to get a handle on the physics to make accurate predictions is very difficult.”

Predicting the strength of a hurricane at landfall is also tough.

A storm that hits can be stronger than expected, not because it picked up speed but because of how its wind bands ebb and flow. Storm recon planes can measure wind speed, but do so only in four quadrants and only at one altitude. At that moment, what is going on due left or due right is anyone’s guess.

“We are only sampling a small portion of the storm,” Letro says.

So what does all of this mean? For the marine, weather and insurance industries – and boat owners too – it means that two “good” years have no bearing on the seasons ahead.

“We need to keep it fresh in everybody’s mind,” says Mike Smith, vice president of training and development at BoatU.S. “It’s been two years and it is easy to forget the pain we all went through.”

For marina owners, its means trying to convince their members that warnings are serious business.

John Naybor, who owns three marinas in Pensacola, Fla., watched surge from Hurricane Ivan wipe out one facility that was in a protected bayou in 2004. Mahogany Landing Marina had 64 slips and 50 boats remained during the storm. Among those, 43 were destroyed, along with the docks.

“We hadn’t had a major storm event in Pensacola in many, many years,” Naybor says. “People were pretty complacent.”

That same facility, which Naybor owns, was rebuilt as a hurricane-resistant facility and christened Palm Harbor Marina in 2008. Naybor hopes it is capable of weathering a Category 3 hurricane. He is certain that it will one day be tested. “I will still be stuck with 50 boats in the marina,” Naybor says.

As far as boat owners are concerned, many tips for weathering major storms and hurricanes came out of this week’s conference. For example, studies consistently show that boats moved ashore during tropical storms fare better than those tied up at dock.

To prepare for the storms in 2005, Swan Point Marina in Sneads Ferry, N.C., pulled all of its more than 500 boats out and secured them with straps and helical anchors screwed into the ground. Fewer than three dozen boats came loose after Hurricane Wilma, which hit the region hard.

“Getting boats out of the water even if the worst happens is better than leaving them in the water,” says Bob Adriance, technical director at BoatUS.

If you do have to leave your boat in the water, there are things you can do to prepare, such as storing or tying down loose gear, eliminating anything that can cause unnecessary windage and ridding the boat of weak points such as aging, three-strand nylon dock lines. Simply using new, braided dock lines in an appropriate size for a storm can help.

Owners should also pay close attention when shopping for a marina, because some are better prepared than others.

Ask for a copy of the hurricane plan and inquire if they have used it and changed anything based on experience. Ask if boat owners were involved in the planning. Read the contract and slip agreement, which should spell out the responsibilities of boat owners and the responsibilities of the facility.

Ask how high the storm surge has been. What about the pilings? Were they high enough to account for that surge? Are they new? Wood, concrete or steel? If they are far apart, the stress on the docks will be greater. Concrete is better than wood and steel is better than concrete – but you will pay more membership at a better-equipped marina, because large concrete or steel pilings are not cheap.

Some marinas require boat owners to pay for one hurricane haul-out up front every season. Others have optional clubs where members, for a fee, get priority treatment. Depending on the state – or country – and liability issues, some facilities will tie boats down ashore. Others won’t but will provide equipment for owners to do it themselves.

The point is to know all this in advance of a storm, and be prepared when it hits.

Forecasting is in large part is about probabilities. And probabilities involve math, not science. For example, a hurricane has a 52 percent change of striking the U.S. coast on average because 52 hurricanes hit in the last 100 years.

Naturally, these probabilities are not perfect. Jacksonville, Fla., hasn’t seen one in awhile. But one county to the south did, a few decades back. So its “hit probability” is artificially inflated, while Jacksonville’s is artificially low.

“We don’t want you playing mental math,” Letro says. “When you hear the warning, take it seriously.

“For every three times you hear a hurricane warning, you’ll probably only get hit once,” he says.

But you’ll never know which one it will be.


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