I always knew hurricanes were tough to predict. I just never knew how tough they were to accurately observe.
Actually, the problem is more complex than that. We’re trying to put a finite number on a system that is complex. Maybe one number is not the way to do it.
Tonight, as an example, the Hurricane Center fixed the top winds of Tropical Storm Cindy at 70 mph. Then I got this:
The 70 mph in the earlier advisory was a sustained wind figure… and from ground level, not 150 feet over the open water. Still, these numbers are so close to hurricane status that you have to wonder, why no Hurricane Watch or Warning?
Maybe the oil rig reading is too high (unlikely) or the stated wind is too low (probably). This is not to say it wasn’t 70 mph back when that number was issued. These things pulse and change rapidly.
It would also be a great stretch to assume that the only observation taken from near the center of the storm just happened to catch its highest wind. If we read 99 mph there, someplace else probably received more.
Years ago I assumed the National Hurricane Center’s published numbers were gospel. They are not. Unlike most of what’s recorded weatherwise, these ‘observation’ are really estimates – and often poor estimates. That’s not NHC’s fault necessarily. They can only work with what they’ve got and hurricanes are usually situated where observations are difficult, if not impossible.
The Hurricane Center walks a difficult path. Report a number too high and you’re calling wolf. No one will believe you the next time. Underestimate and you leave people in harm’s way.
Tonight, I think they’re on the low side and their public statements may leave people unprotected. There’s a Tropical Storm Warning on the Gulf Coast. There should be a Hurricane Warning. My friend Bob, the hurricane maven, said it before I did.
Even if they were to up the category right now, it’s too late to help. The storm is already affecting Louisiana and will come onshore before first light Wednesday.