Storms put forecasters in hot seat

Sophisticated equipment vs. erratic weather

April 09, 2000|By Knight Ridder/Tribune

MIAMI -- When a monster hurricane spirals toward the East Coast, it's a sure bet that a 25,000-square-foot vault, reinforced with enough concrete to pave a mile of Interstate 95, will take a direct hit from a storm of second-guessing.

Satellites have changed the way hurricanes are tracked, but it is up to the forecasters here at the National Hurricane Center to figure out where a storm is headed.

They will be the first to tell you that they do not always know. But that will never stop the people who make evacuation decisions from demanding immediate answers.

The center is a technological bulwark of the government's $4 billion program to upgrade the weather service. It is strung with 50 miles of wiring; with a few keyboard clicks Lawrence can summon state-of-the-art satellite images of of an approaching hurricane and the most sophisticated radar that taxpayers can buy.

Yet Lawrence prefers to plot the course of these potentially deadly storms on charting paper with colored pencils, a primitive compass, and a plastic ruler. At his elbow he keeps a yellowing road atlas.

The red marks are the positions from an Air Force reconnaissance plane that has flown into the storm. The green are from Doppler radar. The veterans prefer the pencils to the gizmos because it gives them a better feel for a storm, says a colleague, Edward N. Rappaport.

Nevertheless, sometimes it is hard to determine precisely where a hurricane is, let alone where it is going. In 1999, for example, Hurricane Floyd was targeting some of the most densely developed areas of the East Coast. It had traveled more than 1,000 miles, forming off the west coast of Africa, then gliding across the Atlantic along the weak east-to-west airstream of a large weather system centered near Bermuda -- the Bermuda high.

Floyd grew into a monster, fueling itself on warm tropical waters, exploding with the heat of convection, and expanding into one of the largest hurricanes on record.

Once it neared the coast, it would be lifted north by a front moving across the mainland United States. Or so the models said.

But on Monday, Sept. 12, Floyd and its 155-m.p.h. winds kept bearing down on Florida, making a dangerously close approach.

It looked as if Floyd might make a house call at the Lawrence residence. "It was so big we thought it could punch through this front," said Stephen Leatherman, director of the International Hurricane Center, which is affiliated with the Miami center. That's why Florida was evacuated, he said.

At almost the last minute, the storm made a sharp turn north, as predicted, paralleling the shoreline and lashing the east coast of Florida with rains and high winds. As it churned northward, state officials in Georgia and South Carolina ordered evacuations, but the coast of Florida, evacuated in much confusion, was spared.

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