Storm of activity at National Weather Service

Forecasters: Trackers rely on experience and technology to predict the path a disturbance will take, but sometimes those aren't enough.

September 17, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

STERLING, Va. -- Barbara Watson took a steamy cup of coffee into the war room of the National Weather Service and stared into a bank of monitors.

When she sat down and picked up a phone at 7 a.m., one of her legs began to bounce.

Moving pictures of a hurricane had just become a bloody wound over Wilmington, N.C.

She thought: Hazel. Andrew. Dennis. Floyd. For a good emergency warning coordinator must think first of past storm surges, disasters and tidal waves.

Around the room, conversations with amateur ham radio operators, state and county officials from mid-Atlantic emergency centers, and other weather forecasters hummed. Data flowed in from monitoring gauges and buoys from the Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac River.

Steve Zubrick, the office's chief scientist, decided he needed the latest: "Melody!"

Melody Paschetag, the hydrologist on staff, had collected data showing Baltimore was waterlogged and about to float.

Watson gathered reports of high winds, heavy rain and swirling storm clouds. She was thinking about Hurricane Fran.

"I'm gonna tell you what I expect," Watson told a group of emergency management officials in Baltimore. She ran the conference call like a telephone psychic.

"The main problem for you will be flooding," she said. Which wasn't too hard to predict, because the city had 4 inches of rain.

Ten years ago, almost to the day, she had started her career in this room chasing Hurricane Hugo. She has a few gray flecks in her hair, but she has gained an impressive way in the art of practiced serenity. While around her printers screeched, phones beeped and computers blinked, she was the eye of the storm -- breezy but businesslike, staunch but sunny.

"Hey Barb!" Zubrick had spotted "a few swirls" in Prince George's County -- baby tornadoes, perhaps.

Paschetag reported 2 to 3 feet of water over parts of North Point Road in Baltimore County.

At 8: 30 a.m., Floyd looked like a hurricane. Forty-two computer monitors caught an aspect of its northern march from Richmond. Hurricane Floyd was over Virginia's Eastern Shore.

"Here's what you've got to worry about," Watson said repeatedly over the next hour, talking to state and local officials by phone. Wind. Rain. Tides. "Looks like a pretty good rain," said Zubrick, looking at a computer as the hurricane bouldered up the coast.

Then something strange happened. Floyd shifted. Just slightly at first. Then quickly a little more until it drove about 30 miles west of its predicted path.

When the National Hurricane Center in Miami phoned at 10 a.m. for a conference call of meteorologists along the mid-Atlantic coast, some people were scratching their heads.

"We've got a hurricane there," said Miles Lawrence, lead forecaster in Miami. "Maybe a minimal hurricane, but it's still a hurricane."

Somebody asked whether the forecast could be left alone, to say winds would blow at 65 mph, so it would still look like a hurricane, even though winds were fading to 60 or less. Somebody else asked whether the forecast could be downgraded to a "tropical storm."

At 10: 30 a.m., when Watson wrote her forecast, the same questions arose.

"Hey, Steve, how high should I go on my gusts?" she asked.

"Sixty," Zubrick said, watching Floyd grinding farther east.

"I said 70 earlier," Watson said.

"OK, make it 65."

She left it at 70. The National Hurricane Center hadn't changed its forecast, either.

About 11: 30 a.m., the boss came. Jim Travers, the meteorologist in charge, had just left a doctor's appointment and saw stream banks brimming.

"Well, it's ugly out there!" he said. "There's 20 inches of rain in Hampton, Va. This thing is living up to its billing."

He was thinking about things named Hazel, Fran, and Andrew, too.

Nobody told him that Floyd had started to lose its punch.

The whole office remained quiet for almost an hour. The storm was a close call. Satellite pictures showed the western edge of Floyd had pulled back. The hurricane was sliding farther east. Things began to look up.

Outside, clouds moved across the sky like a freight train. Rain fell, and shrubs stirred in a lazy breeze.

"Two or three hours, that'll be it," Zurwick muttered.

Callers reported downed trees, flooded roads, power blackouts and winds driving bay water into the craw of Bayside Beach in Anne Arundel County.

Then suddenly, the calls stopped.

"Everybody's watching television," Watson said.

There was a long silence.

"I guess I'll go see what's in the kitchen," she said.

"Yeah, it looks like we're in for a spectacular weekend," Travers said.

At lunch, everyone stood in the hallway and talked about great storms of the past.

They saw a beautiful weekend ahead.

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