Saturday, August 16, 2008

Timid forecasters don't help anyone.

This weekend the first credible threat to become a hurricane headed our way appeared last Thursday as a disorganized tropical mass east of Puerto Rico. Unsure how to report it and not wanting to panic the public unnecessarily, our local NBC weatherman tried his best to ignore it completely. The other South Florida weatherpersons at least said we'd need to monitor it closely.

By Friday afternoon several stations reported the storm had reached 40 mph, and Tropical Storm Fay was officially the sixth named tropical system of the season. Though still very disorganized and slow-moving to the west, Fay was expected to brush south Cuba and head into the Gulf as had the past several systems, But Fay had a different potential track: a low pressure system centered over Denver was on the move south and east. The National Hurricane Center had projected it could arrive as a trough which could curve Fay north into Florida.

Friday afternoon my NBC timid friend acknowledged Fay but again refused to push the button that it posed any danger to us or we should begin to prepare for it. He reported only the facts of the present moment: Fay was now a tropical storm, moving West at 14-16 mph across Hispaniola. On to the local forecast.

I switched to Fox. A lady weatherman was urging the public to make preparations this weekend. Buy bottled water, batteries, gas, and any needed non-perishable foods, lumber or medicines--whatever would be needed to last about three to five days without power, should Fay curve our way. The cone of possible track of the storm's center, at that time, included the entire state.

I turned to The Weather Channel. A meteorologist reported Fay had the potential to "go right up the spine" of Florida, from the tip to the top.

Today our NBC timid soul finally got on board. Yes, we'd better get prepared, just in case. When I went to the grocery this evening people were hauling out cartsfull of bottled water and other supplies, trying not to appear panicked but not very successfully; their purchases belying their fear. I've seen that look in my fellow citizens' eyes before, several times. It says I can expect to drive in a community of total pandemonium if the power goes out, dodge the terrified fellow dodgem drivers as we play chicken at every dark intersection's automatic 4-way-stop mandate, grab every item on the grocery shelves like a Macy's supersale, and expect to hear the chorus of chain saws and generators all through the day and hot night till civilization is restored a block at a time.

School starts Monday, if Fay lets it happen. The districts won't let the children stand out in a storm, so if Fay comes close, this school year will begin with an extra day or two's vacation. We're used to this situation in South Florida; several years' first days have been postponed or interrupted by the approach of threatening weather.

But Monday doesn't give us much time. We have only Saturday and Sunday to prepare, board up, buy our supplies, set up our plans and get ready as best we can. I would have hoped that my NBC meteorologist would have been a bit more forthcoming about the possibilities of Fay coming our way. TV weathermen can go too far the other way, admittedly, and panic the population into a needless run on the system, but "We'll keep an eye on it for you" just doesn't cut it. At least report what the National Weather Service is predicting, and the National Hurricane Center is forecasting as the possibilities, given the interaction of pressure systems and trends. I think my NBC guy just looked out the window at the hot, sunny day, like most, and concluded nothing was amiss.

As I write, Tropical Storm Fay is projected to become a category one hurricane shortly after turning north over open water in the Florida Straits between Cuba and the Keys, continue north as a category one or category two hurricane, pass over Key West, and Tampa, and move up the entire state's west coast, curving further inland and eventually exiting into Georgia or Alabama.
Several years ago Charlie, a similar storm came inland before expected and curved right up the I-4 corridor. It decimated Kissimmee's streets, where my son, Scott, huddled alone in his dark apartment and watched neighbors' roofs blow off, street lights crash to the pavement, storefronts and signs blow to pieces and trees fall so thickly you couldn't even tell where the streets were. The city looked like a war zone. And Charlie was only a category two, they say.

Tropical Storm Fay could, with only a minor deviation, move up the Eastern side of the state instead of the Gulf side, as a category one or two hurricane just as easily, taking out half the metropolitan population and property without surprising anyone here. Or maybe the center of the state, or just as understandably, pass harmlessly northwestward into the Gulf and fizzle out.
With hurricane tracks it's impossible to know for sure.

I've seen hurricanes head north toward the Carolinas, do a complete loop, and return to S. Florida for another punch, like Katrina did several years ago, returning as a category one and crossing from east to west into the Gulf before curving north once more and eventually intensifying into the category four or five monster that devastated New Orleans.

One thing obvious to all who watched and most who reported, is that we were certain to feel the effects of Fay in South Florida no matter where she decided to go, or how weak or intense she would become. That much was clear last Thursday and should have been on every station then. Weathermen who don't have the courage to push the button and say "Look out, everybody, here comes trouble!," even at the risk of being labelled a Chicken Little, shouldn't be on the air.