Was Hurricane Irene Hyped?

In fact, my reading of the surge numbers in Bridgeport, New Haven, and elsewhere on CT at least are that they were comparable to category 2 hurricane estimates.

I’m publishing an essay from my friend Bob Hart. Dr. Hart watched Hurricane Irene with the attention you’d expect from a renowned expert in tropical meteorology and a North Branford native. Like me, Bob was chagrined by critics who felt Hurricane Irene was overly hyped.

Read on. He knows an awful lot about hurricanes.

First, I wholeheartedly agree with the replies here noting the quality of the forecasts by Geoff and Rachel. If this storm were to happen again, I would not ask that the forecasts be changed in any significant way for CT.

While several of those who received little impact from Irene (or those watching from afar, or the masochistic wanting damage) are claiming hype, those who truly were impacted in a serious way are generally not.

I was on the CT coast for Irene and visited a few towns, including that where I grew up (I still have family there). I’m willing to bet a large sum of money that if you asked those impacted by surge (Milford, Branford, Guilford, and beyond) – whether the storm was worse than Gloria – they would say yes.

In fact, my reading of the surge numbers in Bridgeport, New Haven, and elsewhere on CT at least are that they were comparable to category 2 hurricane estimates!

Was this due to the high tide and new moon? In part, yes – but only in part.

Can we forecast the timing of landfall to within 6 hours two days out to make that determination? Absolutely not.

In fact, Irene arrived many hours earlier than the two day forecast (when watches are issued). This is why it is important to consider the range of possibilities in a forecast, as there is an (unspoken) “cone” of uncertainty about intensity just as there is a well-communicated cone about track.

Yet, I suspect if you asked those at the Massachusetts border they would say they barely got tropical storm conditions, and they might be right (I haven’t seen much data since I was out of internet access until my Delta flight right now, ironically!).

Let’s pretend for a minute that we knew from the start that Irene would be a tropical storm when it crossed CT – let’s pretend that only tropical storm warnings were issued from central NJ northward. My bet, with a lot of money, is that the loss of life would have been greater, perhaps much.

A weakening major hurricane crossing as a tropical storm produces much different impacts than a tropical storm that is stable. These generally include storm size, the accumulation of wave growth and surge, as well as model performance. And yet the warnings cannot discriminate between these.

We are a spoiled society. I don’t think that most in NYC realize how much worse it could have been, how close they came. They should look at how far the surge went in CT and LI. Seawalls completely destroyed and pushed inland dozens to hundreds of feet. I saw it in CT.

No doubt those in low lying areas of NYC remember December 1992 when the subways flooded and the FDR and other major routes were covered in water. Many areas on coastal CT approached or exceeded that storm. I suspect those who lost their homes completely in CT and LI (out to sea, yes, there were several in CT and elsewhere where literally only a foundation was left) would gladly have traded their epic loss for a weekend of board games and wine with the family as the only “inconvenience”.

This is the problem with the categorization of hurricanes. The number is primarily associated with wind. Yet, the surge is not entirely (in fact, far less) explained by the wind. The rainfall is almost completely unrelated to the strength of the wind.

The surge in CT was equivalent to a typical category 2 (between Gloria’s surge and 1938’s record surge) while the wind was strong tropical storm (although the post-season analysis will determine that concretely). A moderate to even upper category 1 forecast landfall was exactly the right forecast two days before landfall, when watches were issued and evacuations considered, given the guidance.

And then there is a specific nature of the wind definition of category. The definition of the Saffir-Simpson category is the estimated strongest SUSTAINED wind (1-minute average) at 10-meter elevation anywhere in the storm at that time, assuming open exposure over land. Yes, anywhere in the storm. This means that 99.44% (thank you Ivory soap) is less than that maximum. And most places are much less given the structure of hurricanes.

In fact, almost by definition, the strongest wind in a hurricane is NEVER observed by people or their homes. So a true marginal category 1 hurricane in CT is quite likely to only produce tropical storm force sustained winds across the coastal population and in many well inland areas not even that.

And yet, while being a likely tropical storm in CT at the end, Irene produced a remarkable extent of 50-75mph gusts across a broader region than almost any prior tropical storm on record (well into RI) due to its unusual structure (topic for another day).

And that above tricky definition is the rub.

A colleague at NHC (Dr. Mike Brennan) forwarded some observations from Katrina (category 3 landfall). Do you realize that not a SINGLE official land-based station reported sustained hurricane force winds? Repeat, no official category 1 sustained winds in Katrina on land.

Sure, plenty of gusts – plenty – to hurricane force and even a few to category 2 or 3, but no sustained hurricane force winds.

Even at official marine sites, there was no reported sustained wind above category 1 (six sites reported hurricane force sustained winds, but none above 76kt). If a storm like Katrina which 1) was also huge, 2) so much more intense and 3) hitting an urban area, cannot produce a hurricane force sustained wind on land, we cannot expect the same in CT even if Irene was a category 1 hurricane– unless there is amazing chance.

That chance happened in Bridgeport with Gloria. Gloria produced a 64knot sustained wind in Bridgeport. It was the only sustained wind observed at an official station in CT. And it was by chance, given the track.

In the end, I think our definitions are flawed. We should not be defining a storm by the peak sustained wind intensity which is almost never truly observed. It is for this reason that perhaps millions in south Florida think they experienced category 5 winds, when perhaps a few hundred did (if that).

Finally, I have never seen a track forecast for a New England tropical cyclone as good as this one. NHC, the models they use as guidance, and the scientists who work extremely hard on their developments are to be commended. The actual track the storm took has only occurred a handful of times (perhaps a few fingerful, I won’t pick which fingers) since the 19th century. And while there was some uncertainty of track (over Philadelphia, over NYC, over Boston), it almost never was forecast to go out to sea 4-5 days out (and longer). This is astonishing.

Remember Floyd in 1999? The track was all over the place 4-5 days out. Hugo in 1989 was forecast to come up the coast originally!

Irene was a landmark event for track forecasting for New England, but we should not be spoiled by this. Don’t count on this confidence next time.

As Geoff mentioned, he slightly lowered the rain and wind forecasts Saturday night. It was the right move, and it was the correct forecast. It was the scientifically correct decision without jeopardizing preparation, since people had already prepared. It was a tough decision and not everyone made the same decision, but it was correct from a scientific perspective yet very difficult from a communication perspective.

As part of my classes, I require my students to forecast (and I forecast along with them as any meteorologist worth their salt will do, no matter what the alphabet soup at the end of their name says). I cannot do what Geoff and Rachel do, and I assure you that very few in the world can. Very few jobs in the world require you to be an expert on snowstorms, icestorms, floods, hurricanes, computers, and top-tier communication and improvisation. Oh, and a very thick skin at times. Although I imagine it is very rewarding in the net, I suspect you don’t want their job.

In light of all the above, the consequences at play, and having gone through Irene and having watched Geoff’s blog, and Geoff’s and Rachel’s forecasts for days, I applaud them. People and property were saved during this storm by their forecasts, and their very effective communication of those forecasts.

CT is very lucky to have Geoff back on the air. Now if only our schedules would cross paths so we can meet up for poker.

Bob Hart
Florida State University

14 thoughts on “Was Hurricane Irene Hyped?”

  1. I have to agree, If it wasn’t for people Like Geoff, There would have been Death here. It’s to the testament of these people who stay up all night, away from their families to inform us with enough time to prepare and minimize the loss of life and limb. I am for one grateful for your service Geoff.

  2. Those of us down near the shore know this was not hyped. A short drive by the waterfront homes in West Haven, Milford, and East Haven are enough to convince anyone that this wasn’t hype. Many people we’re simply lucky.

  3. Geoff, don’t let people upset you! You and ALL the weather guru’s across the east coast did a GREAT JOB!!! Here is my recent status update to those of my FB friends saying it was a bunch of hype. “Are you one of those people who posted “Irene was a bunch of hype?” I have a question FOR YOU…Are you also one of those people who still have power? Yeah, that is what I thought!!! On behalf of all the people who are heading into the 3rd day with no power, who are being told it could be at least a week or more, those who lost thier homes/businesses and more importantly 38 loved ones….SHUT THE _____ UP!!!! Nuff said!”


  4. Geoff,

    This wsa not hyped.We just missed it. A big one.I think this one jogged a little to left on land and made landfall as Tropical but with a big punch.I compare this with Jeanne back in 2004 in FL which also was a hurricane but ended as tropical and emerged as hurricane after jogging thru central FL. This was no where near that but yeah coastal people will tell the right thing. I thank god for saving us from this monster.Thank you too for all your hard work and updates.

  5. Not hype at all. Look at the damage along the shore where I have asked people who say definitely worse than Gloria. The immense amount of power outages — also worse than Gloria.

    If you just saw a little rainstorm you were lucky. I did not lose my shoreline house but I saw six seriously damaged or destroyed homes in my own Madison neighborhood.

  6. I feel very fortunate. I never lost power, my property received no damage. Plenty of rain, plenty of wind. Venturing out the day after the storm was a shock. Large trees down all along the parkway. The sound of chainsaws filling the air. Then the devastating images from East Haven. No, this storm was not hyped. This storm was responsibly covered and all involved in that coverage should be applauded. Thank you Geoff for standing your ground.

  7. I totally agree. I think you did a wonderful job. We had to take this storm seriously. I was the most prepared in my group of friends and I don’t think any of them think I was silly after the fact. Thankfully I didn’t lose power, but most of them did. We only lost one large tree on our street. I’m so thankful it wasn’t one of the ones in my yard. Many people lost so much. Thankfully minimal lives were lost.

  8. I live in Western Massachusetts. Shelburne Falls an picture prefect are that includes something known as the the Bridge of Flowers. Until now most of you didn’t even know we existed. We received phenomenal flooding. Roads are washed out,bridges are GONE entire neighborhoods are devastated. I used to 4 have choices to get off my hill. Now I have 1 and it is treacherous. This was no hype, it was major catastrophic flooding in my area. There are roads and bridges that no longer exist, whole areas of towns are blocked off, no way in, no way out. I can’t fathom how school buses are going to get up and down these roads starting tomorrow.

  9. No hype at all! This was for real – I am so thankful that all I’ve lost is power and the ability to get out of my driveway for 2 days (a kind neighbor finally cut the tree that blocked my driveway today). We still don’t have power in Branford, but after seeing how much damage there was and how widespread the destruction was, I feel only gratitude for the warnings we got (and mostly heeded). I wish I could see the TV coverage now to see how the recovery is going, but I have no complaints about the forecasts. Thanks, Geoff and Rachel, for doing what you did!

  10. You needn’t defend yourself to me, Geoff. As usual you did an outstanding job and you’ll always be where I go to get
    the info on the weather, as I have for 20+ years now.
    I think people need to realize that generally we live a pretty cushy life here on Earth, but we do so because nature ALLOWS us to. If it cared to, it could crush us all like bugs. We’re just one earthquake,hurricane, or meteor strike from oblivion. If you don’t believe me, just ask the next dinosaur that you see!

  11. Bravo Bob, what a well written article. It gives much more insight to what goes into
    forcasting a major storm like Irene. Geoff, you and the folks at Fox 61 did an amazing job this past weekend keeping us informed!

  12. We are ratings-crazy, and if we can’t categorize a hurricane, then we’re lost. It was either Friday or Saturday when you pointed out that so called Cat-1 storms buffeting the trees of new England weren’t much different from the Cat-3’s swaying those lovely palms in Georgia and Florida. Bob Davis’s explanation puts it all in perspective—the winds, the rains, the tidal surge—but since we can’t rate those last two items in advance, the people who demand numbers will look at the wind (“only” 74 to 95 mph) and claim you hyped the storm. You’ll never convince them, though recent video of this “little storm’s” misery in East Haven, Fairfield, Vermont, and elsewhere might give them pause.

  13. Bob wrote a very good article here. He confirmed Geoff’s thoughts throughout his forecasts. And his forecasts proved invaluable to this former CT resident (now a resident of Seacoast New Hampshire). I still have friends and relatives (one child) in CT, so I keep track of weather etc. that goes on down there.
    As others have said, FOX 61 did a great job keeping everyone posted on things (even though I could only see on line reports).

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