This year's Atlantic hurricanes meant that we heard a lot about intensity scales and wind speeds.
No, we weren't in Florida for Hurricane Irma. But we sure saw the aftermath of a real douser.
While Irma didn't result in the loss of life on the scale of the devastating storms of Harvey and Maria that hit Texas and Puerto Rico, respectively, the effects taxed the will of the citizenry.
The community of Naples, Florida, was a thriving, fast-growing city in southwest Florida. Many people have been attracted by the warm winter sun that graces its Gulf Coast beaches. From a virtual outpost some 35 years ago, Naples has attracted monied retirees, vast hospital services and facilities, and outstanding cultural activities. As well, many people are aware of its golf-centric lifestyle comprising communities that offer all the amenities of an adult camp that most were not fortunate to attend when they were young.
On September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma headed straight for Naples, packing winds of more than 140 mph (227 km/hr). I was not in Naples, but many of my friends endured the storm. They didn't plan to ride it out, but the predicted path kept changing until it was much too late to reach a more secure location.
Hurricane Irma. Source: NASA/NOAA.
Measurements of the storm's ferocity were mind-boggling sustained winds of 130 mph (210 km/h), with gusts of 142 mph (230 km/h) at Naples airport. It was the first major hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Wilma
Many trees were damaged and uprooted, while others were undamaged. Here are examples of my favorite, the Banyan tree.
are lovely trees that grow quite well in South Florida. Native to India, they reach out widely to provide shade, but most important to me are the many limbs and roots that all seem to be hugging one another. The wide branch system makes them especially vulnerable to hurricanes. Irma caused many to fall over. An effort was made to stand them up and hope for their recovery.
Wind speed: the Saffir-Simpson scale
Most folks are somewhat familiar with the hurricane intensity designations on wind speed as Categories 1 to 5
, with 5 being the most ferocious. These designations have come forth since first being introduced 40 years ago. Known as the Saffir–Simpson scale, these categories have gone through some slight changes over these years to make them easier for the public to understand the serious implications of each category. Storm attributes such as pressure and storm surge aren't part of the scale, but are used in modeling
of the storm.
The predictions are hugely dependent on hurricane hunters
who bravely fly into tropical hurricanes to measure valuable data on temperature, pressure, and wind that are sent back to NOAA at the National Hurricane Center
. This data is extremely useful to determine if the storm is a hurricane or a tropical depression.
Although our predictions are getting better as to possible path and intensity, we still need to improve. A storm in the Atlantic can form off of Africa and take seven to 10 days to approach the Western Hemisphere. Predictions can vary widely and cause wide panic as well as inefficient use of key resources that may be needed for protection and evacuation. Critics
have proposed changes to the present methods to predict the storm's potential for destruction, inland flooding, and storm surge. There are several proposals that are being considered. The hope is that we can transition from an easy-to-understand method that is widely inaccurate to a more definitive approach that classifies its destructive potential.
Always be prepared — never underestimate
From the hurricanes I have been exposed to in Florida and Massachusetts, the outcomes have always been a surprise. We knew a storm was likely, but its path, its intensity, and results varied from almost no storm (most times, it went out to sea) to missing the defined path by 100 to 200 miles. But the potential to hit us hard could not be underestimated. Thus, precautions ranged from stocking storm supplies, battening down every possible weak spot to the extent we could, to outright fleeing to safer ground, wherever that was.
In Florida, Irma first was forecasted to hit toward Miami on the East Coast. Residents chose to head to Naples on the West Coast to avoid the storm’s direct hit. Then the prognosticators changed the path to Naples and many were stuck. Some then headed north toward Tampa, causing traffic jams and chaos in trying to get fuel. Inaccurate forecasts can have poor outcomes as well.
Can we do better? I hope that NOAA will move straightforwardly to implement a more improved approach. It won't solve the problem of these storms' destructive effects, but it will save lives and help in relief for victims.
— Fred Molinari is the former CEO of Data Translation, a pioneer in the business of PC-based data acquisition.
See all EE Times articles by Fred Molinari