Tropical storm season has just hit the US. ShortList’s Andrew Lowry tugs on his sou’wester to investigate the ever-evolving methods used to combat them
Peter Harris was in New Orleans in August 2005. “Until a few days before, we had no idea Hurricane Katrina would hit us,” he says. “It was thought to be going over Florida. By the time we knew, it was too late.”
Planes, trains and buses out of town were cancelled, so Harris – a tourist – was stranded. He sought refuge in the city’s sports stadium, the Superdome – which only two days before had hosted an NFL match. “There were about 15,000 of us in there, and the scariest moment came at 20 past six in the morning, when part of the roof was torn off. We thought the whole thing would come away and we’d be decapitated by falling metal.”
After a number of horrific days, chronicled in his book Diary From The Dome, Harris emerged from the stadium to a scene of devastation. “The city was destroyed – water 3ft deep, full of oil and sewage, buildings on fire – what the hurricane hadn’t wrecked, the flooding had. So many more lives could have been saved if there was more warning.”
Now, almost exactly 10 years on, the US’s Gulf coast is gearing up again for hurricane season. Some things have changed, but plenty haven’t. The US is still hit by a dozen or so hurricanes – or tropical cyclones, as scientists call them – a year, with two to three of them likely to be major storms.
A brief science lesson: they’re caused by warm water in tropical oceans, which evaporates and rises as moist warm air. As the air rises, the water in it condenses
to form clouds, and causes air pressure to fall. This low pressure then sucks up more warm air to form a complex system of rising and falling air, which can cause the strongest winds in nature. Throw in the Earth’s rotation, and it basically creates a giant engine converting energy from the ocean into strong winds, hard rain and, on landfall, the kind of storm surge that caused the devastation Peter Harris witnessed.
It’s the storm surge that can be particularly devastating – almost 2,000 people died in New Orleans alone, and $145bn of damage was caused. The Louisiana economy is still recovering now.
But something has changed over the past 10 years. Look at the organised and zealous response to Hurricane Sandy a few years later on the East Coast – at no point was Kanye West driven to go on television and declare that Barack Obama didn’t care about New Yorkers. Technology has revolutionised meteorology, just as much as other aspects of our lives.
“There’s been an explosion in satellite observations,” says James Franklin, branch chief at Miami’s National Hurricane Centre. “We can track clouds, which allows us to extrapolate the hurricane’s course in our computer models. We’re also getting much more data than we were 10 years ago – we can measure microwaves and radiation to get more detail about conditions inside the storm.”
But not all of this is done by monitoring messages beamed to them from orbiting sensors. Sometimes even meteorology can have its swashbuckling side. “Drones just tend not to survive in the hurricane environment – and besides, you need a plane not far off to relay the data.”
What he’s saying is that the best way to work out what’s going on is by physically flying an old-fashioned, propeller aircraft into a hurricane to gather information.
“I did it for 17 years, and it could get pretty hair-raising,” says Franklin, in a moment of clanging understatement. But such risks have paid off – in 10 years, predictions of a hurricane’s path have become 40 per cent more accurate, with computer models of increasing detail and resolution. Moore’s Law (the 1965 observation that data density would double every year) applies here – the improving speed of computers (and we’re not talking Amstrads) means simulations of where these things are actually going to land are getting ever more accurate.
Predicting a storm’s intensity is the hard part – Baldwin’s team caveat information on storms’ strengths by adding a 15-knot margin of error within two days, not unlike saying you could either be in London or Brighton at any moment over the next 48 hours.
Not coincidentally, the warnings and evacuation order in New Orleans came two days before the hurricane made landfall.
The major problem when the hurricane did hit was the much-criticised response of authorities. The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) at the time was Michael Brown, a Bush administration crony, who was blasted for his lack of experience and ineffective response to the tragedy. He resigned just days afterwards.
Embarrassed by Brown’s controversial failures and how they reflected on the organisation, Fema is now very pro-active.
“We don’t wait to have supplies and support on hand – they’re ready even before state and local authorities request them,” says Fema’s Rafael Lemaitre. “Last summer, a pair of hurricanes hit Hawaii. Some forecasts suggested a direct hit, so we surged resources in anticipation, rather than waiting until after the request was made and wasting valuable time.”
Communication, as Franklin and Lemaitre say, is the most decisive element, and what both their agencies focus on. It’s one thing to get people to store some water and a few cans of beans in their basement, but making sure they know a storm is coming and the best course of action – heading as far inland as possible – is vital to helping people stay safe.
Indeed, in the four years before Hurricane Katrina, the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration recorded 123 hurricane-related deaths in the US; the four years afterwards saw just 15. Education and warnings have been vital. Between 80 and 90 per cent of people evacuated New Orleans in 2005. When the city was threatened again in 2008, it was up to 97 per cent.
And while new technology has helped with that (Fema has an app), it’s not the only solution used.
“Our administrator is a fan of ham radio,” says Lemaitre. “He does it himself, and we have close relationships with amateur radio organisations across the US.”
Billions of dollars spent, cutting-edge technology and pilots risking their lives to fly into the storms – but sometimes the old methods work best. Whatever gets the job done.