By KATE SPINNER
Published: Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 10:52 p.m.
FORT LAUDERDALE – The Atlantic churned with so many hurricanes in the 1920s and 1930s that anyone familiar with tropical weather might mistake the storm counts from that period for the past two decades. Today, during a similar multi-decade phase of high hurricane activity, meteorology has advanced so much that a hurricane should take no one by surprise.
Scientists look to past decades for disaster
Still they do.
Some of the problems that existed decades ago remain, said meteorologists at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference last week. State meteorologists looked back at some the infamous storms of the late 1800s and early 1900s to find communication errors resembling those made during more recent storms.
Thousands courted danger in staying behind during Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston, Texas, in 2008, and in Hurricane Katrina, which hit Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 2005. Despite email, text messaging, smartphones and social media outlets, forecasters still say they have trouble getting their messages across.
“We can get the information to people much more quickly and much more efficiently. The question is: Are we communicating that information in a way that encourages people to take the actions that they need to take?” said Steve Letro, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Jacksonville.
In 1933, 21 tropical storms and hurricanes swept though the western Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. It was the busiest hurricane season on record until 2005. But back then there were no satellites, radar or airplanes that flew into hurricanes with high-tech weather equipment. Meteorologists relied on ship captains to report weather observations, such as pressure and wind speed, to warn of brewing storms. Forecasters knew little about how the storms were behaving until they approached land.
Similar to today, newspapers in 1933 wrote about the huge number of storms the Atlantic was spitting out and told of the destruction after they crossed land. At the end of August that year, two major hurricanes — with dangerous 111 mph or stronger winds — threatened the coast of Florida and Texas at the same time, a scenario that would create havoc today.
The first storm hit Florida, between Martin and St. Lucie counties with 125 mph to 130 mph winds. About 5,000 lived in the area and two were killed. The storm dashed across the central part of the state and dragged northward along the west coast. By then it was a tropical storm. The storm ruined the state’s citrus industry and caused $4 million in damage by 1933 standards, said Scott Spratt, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Melbourne office.
Today, the same hurricane would directly threaten 375,000 people on the East Coast and billions of dollars worth of property statewide.
Satellites would pinpoint the storm before it even became a hurricane.
Meteorologists would track it for days. Three days before landfall, the nation would watch the whole state of Florida become engulfed in the “cone of uncertainty” that forecasters use to predict where a storm will travel. Nobody in Martin or St. Lucie county would be startled to see a hurricane at their doorstep.
Yet, meteorologists wondered if they would evacuate when told. Based on experience with Ike and Katrina, the forecasters were not so sure.
If a storm similar to the 1935 Labor Day hurricane struck the Keys again, meteorologists fear the same mistakes might play out.
Forecasters then knew the hurricane was coming, but it surprised people by growing from a Category 1 to a 5 in less than two days — a rapid intensification that forecasters still have difficulty predicting.
An evacuation train arrived six hours too late, leaving citizens and veterans trapped to ride out the disaster. The storm struck with 185 mph winds, the strongest storm ever to make a U.S. landfall. Rising seas ripped the railroad and caused a 30-mile stretch of destruction. 400 people died — more than half of them veterans — prompting a congressional investigation.
“There was miscommunication between the decision-makers of when they were going to send the evacuation train,” said Fred Johnson, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Key West.
Much of this year’s hurricane conference focused on improving communication among meteorologists, emergency responders and the public to avoid preventable death, such as the thousands who perished during Katrina and the dozens from Ike.
Part of the new strategy this year is to use social media to reach more of the public. National Weather Service offices and the National Hurricane Center have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. The National Hurricane Center also has posted a number of informational videos about hurricanes on YouTube.