Hurricanes: roiling the waters

August 30, 2010

The lethal power of a hurricane hit home for Marylanders this weekend as rip currents created by Hurricane Danielle apparently took one life at Ocean City and caused lifeguards there to pull some 250 swimmers from the treacherous waters.

The hurricane was well out to sea late Saturday afternoon, but the storm had so roiled the waters that lifeguards ordered all swimmers from the ocean. Four men went in the water anyway; three of them had to be rescued and one went missing.

No sooner had Danielle gone off our radar than the National Hurricane Center declared that another Atlantic storm, Earl, had become a major hurricane and could approach Mid-Atlantic beaches at the start of Labor Day weekend.

In the coming days, anyone with property near the water or with weekend beach plans will dutifully check weather forecasts and the projected track of the hurricane, rooting for winds to steer the storm east to the open waters of the ocean. There is also a third disturbance, as yet unnamed, forming in the Caribbean. It, too, could become a hurricane or tropical storm.

Forecasting the path of a hurricane is an uncertain business. The projected track of a storm can be off by 200 to 300 miles. It is a flawed tool, but it is all we have.

There is a lot of bravado surrounding hurricanes. Rather than taking shelter, some residents brag about standing their ground and riding out the storm. Some swimmers and surfers rush into the surf trying to conquer the massive waves. Nature wins most of these brash battles and sometimes, as with the Ocean City incident, it extracts a heavy toll. Even if there isn't a direct hit from a hurricane, there is often danger from collateral damage, such as flooding and downed power lines.

One thing that all Americans should have learned from Hurricane Katrina, the massive storm that devastated New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast five years ago, is that hurricanes need to be treated with respect — not with a devil-may-care attitude.

As has been widely reported, most of the damage and loss of lives suffered in and around New Orleans came from flooding after the failure of the levees. The patchwork of walls and levees that fell apart after Katrina is being replaced by a ring of flood walls, new levees, gates and pumps that stretch some 350 miles. The cost is estimated at $15 billion.

To be sure, Maryland is not as vulnerable to hurricanes as Louisiana. A tally by the National Hurricane Center reports that Louisiana had 49 direct hits from hurricanes between 1851 and 2004. Maryland and Delaware had two each (not including lesser but still potent events such as Tropical Storm Isabel) and Virginia experienced 12 direct hits in the same period. Nonetheless, a storm can do plenty of damage — eroding beaches, flooding lowlands and creating rip currents — without making a direct hit.

Government and private forecasters say this hurricane season, which began in June and runs until November, is expected to be more active than those of prior years.

With its scorching temperatures and violent thunderstorms, this summer has already been a rough one. As the summer winds to a close, we hope that the parade of hurricanes out in the Atlantic will skip past us. But we are keeping an eye on the forecast, our hatches battened down and our foolhardiness in check.

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