Reflections on Irene by Sean Sublette

We have made it through the first one.

As we often point out, hurricane season is June 1 to November 30. But the real heart of the season is middle August to middle October. Another, much weaker, tropical storm formed south of Bermuda this past weekend, and moved into the North Atlantic without much fanfare. The next hurricane, Katia, is beginning to trudge toward the Lesser Antilles, and the environment downstream of Katia is favorable for further development. But even if it were to affect the United States, it would not be until after Labor Day.

Once a storm passes, invariably, there is a lot of Monday Morning Quarterbacking. In the Internet age, it is unavoidable. Maybe you think it was well forecast, maybe you don't. Overall, I think the meteorological community did a good job. Locally, with regard to the steadier, heavier rain shield from Irene, my forecast (made Friday night) ended up being about 20 miles too far east. So the heavier rain bands did escape as far west as Halifax, Charlotte, and Appomattox Counties. Those were the counties I was the most worried about, and it appears my worries were well founded.

All forecasts are guesses. Educated guesses, but guesses. Sometimes, our confidence is high about a particular forecast, sometimes it is low. Conveying that idea is challenging in three minutes on television, which is why I published a Facebook note regarding the storm at 7pm Friday. The introductory paragraph is below. You may judge for yourself whether or not the information was accurate.

"Hurricane Irene is weakening a little bit. The structure at the center is not as well-defined, and dry air is being drawn in from the continent. That is great news. With this, I think Hampton Roads, Eastern Shore, New Jersey Shore, Long Island will avoid a cataclysm. It is still a dangerous storm, don't misunderstand me. There will be beach erosion, coastal flooding, widespread power outages. However, there will not be a phenomenal amount of structural damage from this storm in those locations. This is no Hugo, Andrew, or Katrina, and I think we need to make that clear going into Friday night

The center of the storm will pass almost directly over Metropolitan Hampton Roads, so that is the population center where the conditions will be the worst. Rain will pick up there overnight, and the winds will begin to increase to gale force as the morning progresses. The worst period there will be Saturday afternoon and into the evening as the eyewall goes by."

In retrospect, the wind forecast for Richmond was the least accurate. Given that is my hometown, and almost all of my extended family there lost power, missing that aspect of the forecast bothers me quite a bit. The rain amounts worked out, but I underestimated the amount and duration of severe wind that worked down to the surface from an area a few thousand feet above the ground (in the weather business, we call it convective mixing).

And of course there are opportunists in all of this. I'd prefer to ignore them, but sometimes they push your buttons. A recent op-ed circulating the Internet suggests dismantling the National Weather Service (NWS). There are many reasons why this is, at best, a misguided idea. Mike Smith is Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Executive at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions (a private weather company). He demonstrates why dismantling the NWS is such a bad idea in his excellent blog post.

And as long as we are dancing around that circle, I have to tell you, I do not know why people watch cable news for national hurricane coverage. Yes, my career choice makes me a bit biased, but other than a couple of friends, I have no special relationship with The Weather Channel (TWC).

It does stand to reason, however, that TWC houses the people most qualified (of the national outlets) to cover hurricanes. Fair or not, there are huge amounts of people writing news copy at the cable news outlets who are scientifically illiterate, and as a consequence, inaccurate information regularly ends up on cable news.

I am fortunate enough to have satellite television at my house, and our provider streamed in coverage from local stations. WAVY in Norfolk, WWBT in Richmond, and WJLA in Washington all did excellent work. Local stations know their areas, and with little exception, their coverage runs circles around the cable news outlets.