Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 5:12 PM GMT on June 05, 2006
This is part 2 of an interview I did with the Nothwest Florida Daily News of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, that was published on Sunday, May 28. The questions were posed to me by Del Stone Jr., Deputy Managing Editor and self-admitted weather nut. I'll be back to live blogging on June 14.
Q. Your bio indicates you faced a life-threatening situation while flying into Hurricane Hugo. Would you care to elaborate?
A. We were the first plane to intercept Hugo out near Barbados, and we elected to fly in at 1500 feet, expecting it to be a Category 3 storm (based on satellite estimates). Hugo turned out to be a Category 5, and nearly killed us. We hit 190 mph winds and 5.6 g's of acceleration in the eyewall (the wings are supposed to tear off at 6 g's), and had an engine catch on fire. The pilot lost control of the airplane, and we plummeted to 800 feet above the water before the pilot was able to regain control and extinguish the engine fire as we popped into the eye. Of course, our troubles weren't over then. We were in the eye of a Category 5 hurricane, had only three engines working, and needed to get through the eyewall again to escape. It's quite a story, and I have a long account posted on the tropical page of our web site, complete with photos I took in the eye.
Q. The evacuation for Hurricane Opal in 1995 was a debacle, with thousands of people stranded on highways as the hurricane struck. Afterwards, the National Hurricane Center seemed to revise its standards for evacuation, urging people to run from the water, hide from the wind. Assuming you agree with that assessment, how would you advise people in hurricane-prone areas to handle the question of evacuation?
A. If you have the flexibility, it is good to leave on your own a day before a likely evacuation order is issued. If I lived in the Keys, I would be out of there at the first hint of something serious that might move through. It takes a full 72 hours to evacuate Keys, I would be out of there at the first hint of something serious that might move through. It takes a full 72 hours to evacuate the Keys, and hurricanes like Rita and Wilma that intensify from tropical storm strength to Category 5 in about a day don't give us enough time to evacuate this highly vulnerable region.
In general, if you are still at home when the evacuation order is given, and live in a low-lying area at high risk of a storm surge, get out. Even if the highways are clogged, your chances of survival are still better than being on the coast. But as we saw during the evacuation of Houston during Hurricane Rita, and in Florida during Opal of 1995, evacuating from the wind doesn't always make sense. In fact, some estimates put the death toll from the evacuation due to Hurricane Rita at over 150 people, 23 of them when a bus carrying 45 nursing home evacuees erupted into flames and exploded on Interstate 45. Not counting Katrina, that's a higher death toll than any hurricane since Camille of 1969 (256 deaths). So, I think we need to think hard about evacuating the very sick and elderly from the wind. But, I've heard from a lot of people who've had bad experiences trying to ride out a hurricane in an evacuation zone. The mantra I've heard so many times, is, "I'll never ignore another evacuation order!" Your best bet is to always heed the evacuation order.
Q. Many people have become critical of media coverage of hurricanes. Television clips of correspondents standing in high winds as debris flies about have become commonplace. Do you feel this approach sensationalizes storm coverage? Do you believe it sets a bad example for viewers, encouraging them to do the same? What about be concentrated coverage from weather-exclusive entities like The Weather Channel? Does such coverage skew context, giving viewers an unrealistic picture of a storm's threat?
A. I don't believe a significant number of viewers will seek to go out in a hurricane in imitation of what they see TV reporters doing. However, hurricanes coverage is too sensationalized and over-hyped for my liking. Hurricane have become entertainment. One of these days, a reporter is going to get seriously injured by flying debris. I've championed on my blog the idea of having reporters doing their show from a safe place out of the wind, and sending wind-up toys out into wind to be blown away for dramatic effect. TV stations can make a creative and dramatic demonstration of the wind's power without endangering the lives of reporters.
Hurricanes are sensational enough in their own right, and do not need dramatization. My philosophy is to simply report from my own deep knowledge and understanding of these great storms, and not try to generate more hype in an effort to drive up ratings. In contrast, Accuweather's recent press release that the Northeast U.S. might be the target of a major hurricane this season was an excessively sensational."The Northeast is staring down the barrel of a gun," the article said. Language like this is effective in scaring people and driving up ratings, but is not an effective way of warning people in the Northeast of the true risks they face this year. Everyone living on the Atlantic Ocean is at risk, every year.
To be continued...
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