A flight through Hurricane Hugo, remembered 20 years later

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:21 PM GMT on September 15, 2009

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The remains of Hurricane Fred continue to generate sporadic bursts of heavy thunderstorm activity over the middle Atlantic Ocean. These thunderstorms were generating winds up to 35 mph, according to this morning's QuikSCAT pass. Dry air and high wind shear of 20 - 25 knots today and Wednesday will continue to prevent regeneration of Fred. By Thursday, the chances for regeneration of Fred increase, since wind shear near Fred's remains will fall below 20 knots. However, continued high wind shear and dry air over the next two days will further disrupt the remains of Fred, and there may not be enough left of the storm to regenerate from by the time the wind shear drops. The NOGAPS model forecasts that Fred could regenerate by Sunday, when the remains of the storm will be approaching the Bahama Islands.

Satellite imagery shows a small circulation associated with a tropical wave about 200 miles west of the Cape Verdes Islands. Heavy thunderstorms activity has increased in this region over the past day. However, wind shear is near 20 knots, which is marginal for development, and shear will increase to near 30 knots as the wave progresses west-northwest into a band of high wind shear that lies to its north. It is unlikely that this wave can develop into a tropical depression this week, and NHC is giving it a low (less than 30% chance) of developing into a tropical depression by Thursday.

Tropical storm development is possible this week along a frontal zone stretching from the Bahamas northeastward. Anything that develops may end up being extratropical in nature, and would likely move northeastward out to sea.

The GFS model is predicting development of a new tropical wave coming off the coast of Africa early next week.


Figure 1. The remains of Hurricane Fred (left) appears as a swirl of low-level clouds with a clump of heavy thunderstorm activity on the northwest side. A tropical wave is 200 miles west of the Cape Verdes Islands (right), off the coast of Africa. This wave is probably under too much wind shear to develop.

A flight through Hurricane Hugo, remembered 20 years later
The events of September 15, 1989, have affected me more deeply than those of any other day in my life. The fifteen members of our crew very nearly became the first of Hurricane Hugo's many victims, and I am still grappling twenty years later with the emotional fallout from the experience. (If you are troubled by a traumatic experience, you may want to consider EMDR therapy, which I found to be helpful). The process of writing the story of that flight was also very therapeutic, and I worked intermittently for six years on the story while I was working towards my Ph.D. For those of you who haven't read it, do so! I worked very hard on it, and it is a remarkable story.


Figure 2. GOES visible satellite image of Hurricane Hugo taken on September 15, 1989. Image credit: Google Earth rendition of the NOAA HURSAT data base.

The Hurricane Hunters often carry reporters and camera crews on their flights, and the unlucky soul on our flight through Hurricane Hugo was young Janice Griffith of the Barbados Sun newspaper. Her account:

Horror of Hugo's Eye
TO a young reporter, with perhaps more journalistic curiosity than is good for her, it seemed a chance for a good story. To others, who were quick to tell me so, a flight into the centre of a powerful and dangerous hurricane was "sheer madness".

In the end, my journey Friday on a "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft with a hardened, professional crew was nerve-shattering, awesome, and unforgettable. When we limped back into Grantley Adams International after a beating from nature's fury in the form of Hurricane Hugo, I had my story. But I also had to agree that I must have been crazy to have gone in the first place.

Not that I wasn't forewarned.

You sure you want to go?" Dr. James McFadden, manager of the airborne science programmes of the United States Department of Commerce and head of the team asked when I raised the subject following their arrival from their Miami base on Thursday night. "It can be a very dangerous trip".

I wasn't fazed. After all, I'd flown a lot on commercial aircraft, from LIAT to large jumbo jets, and these hurricane hunter were experts who, I was assured, had been in the business of tracking storms in the Atlantic and Caribbean for a dozen years or more. Some had even been at it for 18.

They'd all been through and gone into the eyes of dozens of hurricanes and come back to tell the tale. Not even apprehensive as I, the only woman along with 10 men, boarded just before noon Friday and was shown to one of the four seats in the cockpit, just behind pilot Gerry McKim.

No hostess coming through with complimentary drinks here--or clicking on a seat belt. I was harnessed in like an infant in the rear seat of a car, waist and shoulders securely strapped. "Just in case", I was told.

While I observed, wide-eyed, everyone went about his business with the facility of someone who has done it all before a hundred times over--the pilot and co-pilot, Lowell Genzlinger, the flight engineer, the navigator, the weather experts. Everyone.

Calming effect
Their efficiency had a calming effect and the first half-hour or so, as we headed northeast to investigate and report on the details of Hugo's size and power, was no rougher than any commercial flight I've been on.

But then the sky began to close in with heavy, dark clouds and the 14-year old turboprop plane began to take the kind of buffeting it must have done several times during similar sorties.

The crew treated it all as a matter of course, getting on with their duties, checking radar and charts, communicating their information to headquarters in Miami, doing the other chores that seemed to keep everyone busy.

My notebook tells me we caught up with Hugo at 1:28 pm. For the next hour or so, I wondered why we ever tried--and I got the distinct impression almost everyone aboard wondered that too.

We were surrounded by clouds a dark gray, almost blue, color. The rain pelted down on the fuselage with an intensity that was deafening, like torrential rain on a galvanized roof and with a force that, it was later discovered, burst a small hole in the roof of the fuselage. When it was visible, the sea was almost black, like bubbling tar.

The computer print-out that had registered the wind speed from the time we took off peaked at 185 mph around this time.

We entered the eye--the area of low pressure that is completely calm and marks the centre of the hurricane--at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. Suddenly, my stomach seemed to become detached from my body as as the place dropped, I was told later, to 1,500 feet.

All hell seemed to break loose around and back of me. Briefcases, cups, soda-cans, books, anything unsecured came clattering down. The air conditioning shut down as did the radar and the weather computer. I just gripped the nearest arm and held on for dear life, realizing now why we had all been strapped in so tightly.

"That's unusual", flight engineer Steve Wade said when McKim and Genzlinger got back control of their plane. His attempt at sounding cool was father futile.

Dr. McFadden, a stocky man with gray beard and spectacles, came through, checking on us. He was visibly shaken.

"Everyone alright?" he inquired. We were but his face mirrored his concern when he told me: "This is the worst experience in all of our years going into a hurricane".

Soon there was to be even more. It was discovered that engine No. 3--the near right-side--had conked out. The pilots reported it was on fire and they had to shut it down. Another one was working but not at full capacity.

My life, I knew, rested in the skilled and experienced hands, and heads, of those in control of this wonderful piece of machinery. But, to tell the truth, I was never overcome by fear or panic. Somehow, I sensed all would be well.

Perhaps if I'd known more it would have been different, for we still had to find our way back out of the eye, to penetrate the wall again, and to gain elevation. To do that, on reduced power, meant jettisoning 7,000 of our 10,000 pounds of fuel to lighten the load and circling for an eternal hour while this was done.

Finally, a "weak spot" was found in the cloud formation and we could make an exit from the prison of the eye where we had been trapped for a frightening hour. Around us, winds were now registering 155 knots, and the plane was still being hammered by the weather.

But we were out of the eye and Dr. McFadden, in jubilant relief, exclaimed: "Let's get out of here". He echoed the feeling of everyone aboard.

The system engineer, Schricker ("that's it, don't worry about the first name", he said when I pressed) was more explicit. "I've been flying for 18 years and I don't think I want to fly again," he said.

As we got out of Hugo's clutches and left him to make his way towards the eastern Caribbean, Dr. McFadden put the experience in perspective for me. "You didn't really know what you went through," he said as we headed back to Grantley Adams, itching to back on Terra Firma. "We almost didn't get out of the eye. We almost didn't make it. It was a serious situation".

I believed him--and couldn't help wonder at the bravery of these men who so frequently risk their lives so that others may be saved from the destruction of the storms that head across the Atlantic annually between June and November.

They were working at Grantley Adams yesterday on getting that engine back into shape so that they could be ready the next time another one comes along.

They must be crazy!


Figure 3. An account of the September 15, 1989 flight through Hurricane Hugo posted by reporter Janice Griffith in the Barbados Sun newspaper.

Comments on Janice's story
The rain didn't really punch a hole the fuselage of our airplane as Janice reported. Also, we penetrated the eyewall at 1,500 feet, and dropped to 880 feet during the extreme turbulence in the eyewall. Other than that, Janice has the facts pretty well in hand, particularly the "They must be crazy!" part. Three of us--myself, radio operator Tom Nunn, and electronic engineer Terry Schricker--never flew again on a hurricane hunter mission. However, four members of that flight--Hurricane Field Program Manager Dr. Jim McFadden, Chief Systems Engineer Alan Goldstein, Navigator (now flight meteorologist) Sean White, and the director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, Frank Marks--continue to fly into hurricanes to this day.

I caught up with Janice Griffith via email last year, when I invited her to a "Hurricane Hugo survivors luncheon" for the twelve people from that flight who are still alive (alas, radio operator Tom Nunn, electronic engineer Neil Rain, and chief scientist Dr. Bob Burpee have passed on). Six of us got together at a hurricane conference in Orlando. Janice is still working as a reporter in Barbados, and couldn't make it. Her email to me:

"Nice Hearing from you.
Well after that trip into the eye of Hurricane Hugo,
I certainly will not be going on another.
We almost lost our lives.
And whenever I think about it...I just get some shivers".

Jeff Masters

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1118. JLPR
Quoting reedzone:


It didn't develop, was close though the next morning. The hit the wall of wind shear the day after.


oh I see
well, shear has definitely been efficient this year xD
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Quoting hydrus:
I believe what you posted is correct. If Fred intensified and regained hurricane strength, it would be to the surprise of many expert meteorologists. The wave behind Fred and the one over Africa should be monitored, especially by Mets in the Antilles because of the one wave exiting so far south of the Cape Verde Islands.


yup and with the ridge forecasted to build in by most if not all models, those two waves could have an impact
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Quoting JLPR:


which storm developed from 97L? :)


It didn't develop, was close though the next morning. Then hit the wall of wind shear the day after.
Member Since: July 1, 2008 Posts: 13 Comments: 7387
1114. hydrus
Quoting GatorWX:
To be honest, I think Freddy isn't going to benefit much from the ULL to its SW (obviously, TC's never do). I think it will likely disrupt the circulation which it seems to have done today. It doesn't look nearly as symmetrical as it has for a long period of time. If Fred does come back and the upper low sticks around, it's not likely he will become very powerful. We've seen it time again, TC's interacting with a ULL never do. They usually almost appear subtropical. I think the wave east of Fred may be a bigger threat. The recent burst of convection is convincing that it has good potential of developing. The track should be rather similar to Fred's and with the exception of the immediate near term, has a fairly good environment ahead. Any opinions, or opponents? Just my opinion based on modest observations; I haven't really divulged into too many maps or models, just steering layers, shear models and satellite loops. Anyway...
I believe what you posted is correct. If Fred intensified and regained hurricane strength, it would be to the surprise of many expert meteorologists. The wave behind Fred and the one over Africa should be monitored, especially by Mets in the Antilles because of the one wave exiting so far south of the Cape Verde Islands.
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1113. Grothar
Quoting homelesswanderer:


I wish I could help ya. Math is not my forte. When I was in college we had math labs where graduate students helped the rest of us. I didn't spend too much time there since I dropped the obligatory algebra class like a hot potato. Lol. They're going to make me finish that before/if I ever finish my degree. :(

Had writing labs too. Despite being an English major they had a seat with my name on it. Lol.
Apparently English professors do not like t when you correct them on punctuation. Lol. The comma will be the death of me yet. What I learned from the writing lab, the teacher's always right. :) Good luck.


Hey Lady!! How are you? Didn't know your were an English major. Must have missed you on the site tonight. Not on much. Have you kept up with all the new little features that keep popping in the tropics? Noticed, no commas?
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Quoting JLPR:


which storm developed from 97L? :)


I will take Invests that didnt develop for 1000 Alex lol
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1110. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
AOI/XX/XX
MARK
17N/35W
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53834
1109. JLPR
Quoting reedzone:


Not being naive, 97L a month or two ago was downcasted do to dry air and I'm the only one on the site that gave it hope.. and was put on ignore by some people. These type of features can easily surprise people. I'm giving it a medium chance for formation, not a high chance do to the dry air and marginal shear. I expect another burst of storms by DMAX. Sometimes you just got to expect the unexpected. I'm not disagreeing with you, but I'm not going to say Fred is done yet, it's gone all this way and has more on it's track.


which storm developed from 97L? :)
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Wave by the CV Islands has a better shot to develop
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Quoting btwntx08:
that wave by the cv island isn't going to develop trust me


and you know this because?

fact is it has a much better environment that Ex Fred does

Seems to me you are offended by the fact that people are right about Ex Freds' chance being slim to none.
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Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


Reed dont be some naive lol, the reason it doesnt have a great shot to develop is that it is in an unfavorable environment, the dry air and ULL combined are killing Ex Fred right now

Has absolutely nothing to do with convection building and dying out, it is what it is.


Not being naive, 97L a month or two ago was downcasted do to dry air and I'm the only one on the site that gave it hope.. and was put on ignore by some people. These type of features can easily surprise people. I'm giving it a medium chance for formation, not a high chance do to the dry air and marginal shear. I expect another burst of storms by DMAX. Sometimes you just got to expect the unexpected. I'm not disagreeing with you, but I'm not going to say Fred is done yet, it's gone all this way and has more on it's track.
Member Since: July 1, 2008 Posts: 13 Comments: 7387
1103. JLPR
Quoting BurnedAfterPosting:


thats a big IF


yep, that wave by the CV is looking more interesting right now =P
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1101. Dakster
Quoting StormW:


No, no...let me clarify.

I retired as a Senior Chief. What I meant as General Ed was, I had attended St. Petersburg College here in Clearwater. I knocked out about 85% of the General Education requirements and pre-reqs to get into FSU to work on a meteorology degree. But, do to the circumstances with my boy, didn't have a tarnquil enough environment to study Calculus and Trig. Upon withdrawing from college, I had a 3.7 GPA.


I'm still impressed! and hopefully you will get to go back. I think everyone who wants to go to college should be able to. Personally, I am done. I get enough OJT and mandatory classes that my learning needs are met.
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Quoting 1900hurricane:

Yeah, I think that's what I'm going to do too actually. I don't think alot of people going into Meteorology realize how much math there is, and alot of people I know are considering a change of major. Not me though!

I can tell you this about math at A&M.
Blinn courses in the Calculus I, II, or III transfer just fine, there are 40 students in a class (not 600), it costs half as much as A&M, and you are more likely to get a grad student that speaks English fairly well there (instead of one that doesn't).

The higher courses are A&M only.

And the first 2 years of math/physics are known as "weed out" courses that seem to have the intent of lessening the numbers of majors that require them. Not intentional, but that is the effect. If you survive the first 2 years, the rest is tough, to be sure, but strangely doable in such a way that it seems easier than those first 2 years.
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Member Since: June 9, 2007 Posts: 4 Comments: 15889
1096. Dakster
Welp. Got a LONG day tomorrow that starts at 0'dark thirty... So good night all.

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1094. Seastep
Quoting tornadodude:


yeah, I need to find some study partners for this, because the more people who are involved in it the more likely someone is to get it


Probably late, but strip out the superfluous stuff. Makes a big difference.
Member Since: September 9, 2008 Posts: 6 Comments: 3414
Quoting JLPR:


if Fred can get away from the ULL and still have its LLC intact then yes, there is a very good chance we see Freddy again


thats a big IF
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Quoting tornadodude:
Alright, ive come to the conclusion that I need to talk to my professor, he will be able to help me the most, thanks for the input tho guys!

also, sorry about always posting about my homework problems, just couldnt think of better people to ask, but when the tropics get active I wont take up blog space


I wish I could help ya. Math is not my forte. When I was in college we had math labs where graduate students helped the rest of us. I didn't spend too much time there since I dropped the obligatory algebra class like a hot potato. Lol. They're going to make me finish that before/if I ever finish my degree. :(

Had writing labs too. Despite being an English major they had a seat with my name on it. Lol.
Apparently English professors do not like t when you correct them on punctuation. Lol. The comma will be the death of me yet. What I learned from the writing lab, the teacher's always right. :) Good luck.
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1091. JLPR
Quoting reedzone:
Convection waning = people downcasting..
Gotta love this site. I'm giving it a decent chance to develop, may I be the only one predicting development in the future! :)


if Fred can get away from the ULL and still have its LLC intact then yes, there is a very good chance we see Freddy again
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Quoting reedzone:
Convection waning = people downcasting..
Gotta love this site. I'm giving it a decent chance to develop, may I be the only one predicting development in the future! :)


Reed dont be some naive lol, the reason it doesnt have a great shot to develop is that it is in an unfavorable environment, the dry air and ULL combined are killing Ex Fred right now

Has absolutely nothing to do with convection building and dying out, it is what it is.
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1089. Grothar


The feature behind Fred is looking better in each frame.
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Quoting StormW:
I've seen a lot of back and forth about ex-Fred.

Here's what I see from analysis. If there hasn't been a center reformation, then the LLC is SW of the convection and is under 20 kts of shear. The LLC should be around 18-19N.

Second, all te convection we've been seeing, will continue to flareup and dissipate, due to 2 counts, sinking air from the MJO, and as the thunderstorms flareup, they suck in the dry air, then dissipate.


Similar to whwat happend with Ericka?
Member Since: September 6, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 3720
1086. JLPR
Quoting Dakster:
JLPR - Nice. When I took computer classes we learned Cobol, Fortran, Pascal, Assembly.

Now you should hopefully learn C#, .NET, etc...

---

You know what - I wouldn't count Fred out just yet. I'd like a nickel for everytime someone said he was "dead". At this point isn't he defying the models that were generated a few days ago?


Lets see what the future brings =]
this is my first year so im still with mostly basic classes =S...the boring part of college lol
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Quoting WeatherStudent:


Excuse me? You've got some nerve, dispicable pest. Good evening, Senior Chief, how are ya? How are the boys?


Nice spelling champ

Bi-polar much?
Member Since: June 9, 2007 Posts: 4 Comments: 15889
1084. GatorWX
Quoting JLPR:
that's one heck of an eye



Yes, it is indeed a beautiful system. Large eye for a cat 5!
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Convection waning = people downcasting..
Gotta love this site. I'm giving it a decent chance to develop, may I be the only one predicting development in the future! :)
Member Since: July 1, 2008 Posts: 13 Comments: 7387
1080. Dakster
Quoting StormW:


Mine too!

Had finished College Algebra few years back, and had started Pre Calculus and Trig, but due to the situation at home with my boy...had to withdraw. Not a good environment to work on that type of math. Hope to go back though.

Had almost all the General Ed completed, carried a 3.7 GPA.



Storm, You retired from the USCG as a Master Chief without a GED? That is very impressive!

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Quoting GatorWX:
To be honest, I think Freddy isn't going to benefit much from the ULL to its SW (obviously, TC's never do). I think it will likely disrupt the circulation which it seems to have done today. It doesn't look nearly as symmetrical as it has for a long period of time. If Fred does come back and the upper low sticks around, it's not likely he will become very powerful. We've seen it time again, TC's interacting with a ULL never do. They usually almost appear subtropical. I think the wave east of Fred may be a bigger threat. The recent burst of convection is convincing that it has good potential of developing. The track should be rather similar to Fred's and with the exception of the immediate near term, has a fairly good environment ahead. Any opinions, or opponents? Just my opinion based on modest observations; I haven't really divulged into too many maps or models, just steering layers, shear models and satellite loops. Anyway...


I agree with you 100%

Fred not doing so good, wave behind it has a better shot
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Quoting tornadodude:


to be honest, I have really been thinking about becoming an elementary school teacher

You can get your loans paid for in most places for doing that. It is a program where if you sign up to teach public school, fulfill some subject they are lacking teachers, and stay for some number of years (3?), they pay off your loans in full.

That is a job I have a lot of respect for. I wouldn't last 2 days before being jailed/fired/both.
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1077. JLPR
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
ULL is taking it away as it pulls the previous convection into it the new burst should expand and follow same coarse i think frds coc has already been disruted by ULL and in fact be eaten up


yep interaction with an ULL so close cant be good for development
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Quoting atmoaggie:

I was one course away from a minor once I finished the required math. So I took the last one by choice, actually.

At least at A&M, and probably most other programs, the mets have to take more math than the engineers, except the electricals.

Yeah, I think that's what I'm going to do too actually. I don't think alot of people going into Meteorology realize how much math there is, and alot of people I know are considering a change of major. Not me though!
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Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
ULL is taking it away as it pulls the previous convection into it the new burst should expand and follow same coarse i think frds coc has already been disruted by ULL and in fact be eaten up


That is a nice dinner.
Member Since: September 6, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 3720
1074. GatorWX
To be honest, I think Freddy isn't going to benefit much from the ULL to its SW (obviously, TC's never do). I think it will likely disrupt the circulation which it seems to have done today. It doesn't look nearly as symmetrical as it has for a long period of time. If Fred does come back and the upper low sticks around, it's not likely he will become very powerful. We've seen it time again, TC's interacting with a ULL never do. They usually almost appear subtropical. I think the wave east of Fred may be a bigger threat. The recent burst of convection is convincing that it has good potential of developing. The track should be rather similar to Fred's and with the exception of the immediate near term, has a fairly good environment ahead. Any opinions, or opponents? Just my opinion based on modest observations; I haven't really divulged into too many maps or models, just steering layers, shear models and satellite loops. Anyway...
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ULL is creating havoc for Ex Fred

doesnt stand much of a chance with that ULL plus the dry air

I know some will be disappointed by that
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Quoting StormW:


Ooooppss, sorry ma'am!


no problem... :)
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1071. Dakster
JLPR - Nice. When I took computer classes we learned Cobol, Fortran, Pascal, Assembly.

Now you should hopefully learn C#, .NET, etc...

---

You know what - I wouldn't count Fred out just yet. I'd like a nickel for everytime someone said he was "dead". At this point isn't he defying the models that were generated a few days ago?
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1070. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting JLPR:
Fred's convection looks very close to dissipated, a new little area of convection is now developing a little more to the south

ULL is taking it away as it pulls the previous convection into it the new burst should expand and follow same coarse i think frds coc has already been disruted by ULL and in fact be eaten up
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53834
Quoting atmoaggie:

Well, let's not get carried away. Any electrical engineer and most mets have done about the same.
Admittedly, it isn't for everyone. Just as I would (have) do (done) poorly in a greek literature course, some people just are not built for multivariate calculus as I am not built for the liberal arts.
The math/physics takes a drive and commitment that I sorely lack in other focuses.


to be honest, I have really been thinking about becoming an elementary school teacher
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8339
1068. JLPR
Quoting btwntx08:
created a moisture enviornment so no dry air to contend imo




as long as the ULL is around ex-Fred it will have problems
it isn't natural for a tropical system to have an ULL so close to it xD
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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