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Friday, August 13, 2004

Tropical (Storm) Punch


The Carolinas are about to experience a one-two, tropical storm punch that it has not been seen in nearly 75 years, according to a local meteorologist. Tropical storm Bonnie, not as strong as expected, dumped needed rain on areas east and south of Charlotte, while the city itself slogged through steady rain for half a day. That was Thursday. Today, Friday, Hurricane Charley, just upgraded to category four, packing sustained winds of 145 mph and gusts up to 160 mph, is set to make landfall near Tampa, Florida, soon. The storm is expected to reach the Carolinas by Saturday evening.

After Hurricane Andrew, Americans became far more sensitive to these mammoth storms. Although only a few each year make landfall, when they do, they make a terrific mess and cause considerable injuries and deaths. Andrew wreaked $25-30 billion in damages and killed 65 people, an exceptionally low figure over which experts still shake their heads in wonder. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 killed six to eight thousand people, the most by a hurricane in U.S. history. In 1970, a cyclone that hit East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, killed at least 200,000—some say half a million—and another 100,000 were reported missing.

Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, gives us an idea of the power within a hurricane:
A mature hurricane is by far the most powerful event on earth; the combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former Soviet Union don't contain enough energy to keep a hurricane going for one day. A typical hurricane encompasses a million cubic miles of atmosphere and could provide all the electric power needed by the United States for three or four years. During the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, winds surpassed 200 miles an hour and people caught outside were sandblasted to death. Rescue workers found nothing but their shoes and belt buckles. So much rain can fall during a hurricane—up to five inches an hour—that the soil liquefies. Hillsides slump into valleys and birds drown in flight, unable to shield their upward-facing nostrils. . . . In 1938, a hurricane put downtown Providence, Rhode Island, under ten feet of ocean. The waves generated by that storm were so huge that they literally shook the earth; seismographs in Alaska picked up their impact five thousand miles away. (p. 102)
Such power is nothing to trifle with, which is why emergency management officials recommend wholesale evacuations of areas near a hurricane's landfall.

Beyond its powerful winds, the most lethal part of a hurricane is the sheer amount of water it brings. Most people think of massive amounts of rain, but more deadly is the ocean's storm surge. Water piles up in front of the high winds, flooding the coastal areas up to about 25 feet, as occurred in Mississippi during Hurricane Camille in 1969. If the hurricane's right-front quadrant should hit shore at high tide, the storm surge could be as devastating as thousands of rampaging bulldozers. In both the Galveston and Bangladesh hurricanes, storm-surge flooding caused the most deaths.

We know how hurricanes form and develop, how various factors steer them, and what to expect from them. Our forecasting has improved tremendously, with computer simulations providing highly accurate tracks out to 36 or 48 hours. This allows emergency crews to set up and get the word out to residents and tourists. Building codes have also been stiffened in high-risk areas, reducing property damage and providing better shelter for those who dare to ride them out. These factors are largely responsible for the declining death totals due to these huge storms.

But man may as well be a mouse when it comes to controlling them. The forces that cause and sustain hurricanes are so massive that nothing man can do has any serious effect on their strength or destination. In reality, we just have to take whatever the storm brings. How humbling.

We gain some perspective when we read the words from Job 36:26-33:
Behold, God is great, and we do not know Him. . . . For He draws up drops of water, which distill as rain from the mist, which the clouds drop down and pour abundantly on man. Indeed, can anyone understand the spreading of clouds, the thunder from His canopy? Look, He scatters His light upon it, and covers the depths of the sea. For by these He judges the peoples; He gives food in abundance. He covers His hands with lightning, and commands it to strike. His thunder declares it, . . . concerning the rising storm.
Consider this when watching the weather this weekend.