Isaac Fades, but Odds of Hurricane Disaster Loom

By Michael D. Lemonick

I got a rather breathless email yesterday from one of my colleagues telling me about a new bulletin from the National Hurricane Center about Tropical Storm Leslie.  It said, in part: “THIS IS THE SECOND-EARLIEST FORMATION OF THE 12TH NAMED STORM ON RECORD IN THE ATLANTIC BASIN . . . ECLIPSED ONLY BY LUIS OF 1995.”

At first, I have to admit, I rolled my eyes. It felt like the kind of ridiculous statistic baseball announcers dredge up when there’s nothing worthwhile to say, but they feel they need to say something anyway (“It’s the fourth time in baseball history that a left-handed Dominican third baseman has faced a right-handed pitcher from South Carolina in the month of July . . . ”). 

Hurricane Kirk is a strong Category 2 as of Friday morning with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph. Tropical Storm Leslie continues to strengthen over the Atlantic Ocean, maximum sustained winds 65 mph. 
Credit: National Hurricane Center/NOAA. 

There was something to say on Thursday, of course, when Hurricane Isaac still dominated the headlines on. But as of Friday, Isaac wasn’t even on the National Hurricane Center’s official map, a day later.

But my reaction was dumb, on two counts. First, Isaac may have degraded into a tropical depression, but it’s bringing drenching and potentially dangerous rains to the Midwest. That may help alleviate the ongoing drought in some places, but as Gerry Bell, lead hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center reminded me in a phone call, “Inland rainfall is the leading cause of death from these storms.”

The other major gap in my reasoning, which I think I share with most Americans, is that I dismiss Leslie, which should turn into a hurricane by Saturday, and Kirk, which already a hurricane, because they’re unlikely to hit land.

What it really says, however, is that we’re seeing just the kind of hurricane season forecasters have been expecting, with 12-17 named storms by the time the season ends on November 30. “There’s a lot of activity,” Bell said. “We’re low on major hurricanes, but we’re really in the peak of the season now.”

And while the National Hurricane Center’s awkward formulation (“second earliest 12th named storm”) is perfectly accurate, scientist-blogger Brian McNoldy’s description is a lot easier to follow. This is, he writes “the second most active Atlantic hurricane season to date on record.”

Now that gets my attention. Not even the best forecasters, armed with the best computer models, can say when storms Nos. 13, 15, or 17 might form, to say nothing of whether they’ll stay safely at sea or smash into land. Once they do form, experts like Bell are pretty good at saying where they’ll go, although forecasters are still pretty bad at saying how intense a given storm will become even a day or two in advance.

What that means is that anyone who’s breathing a sigh of relief that Isaac didn’t turn out to be a second Katrina, and that Leslie and Kirk are threatening some transatlantic shipping lanes but not much else, may be jumping the gun. It could be that there won’t be any more hurricanes after Leslie, though that’s unlikely. It could be that all the rest will flail around the Atlantic for a while, then die.

But it could well be that a Category 4 or 5 storm is right around the corner, and that it could slam into a major population center before Halloween, or even before Columbus Day. It’s all a game of odds — and as Bell reminded me, the odds of hurricane disasters shot upward 1995, when the Atlantic entered an unusually active phase. Based on history, that phase should last from 25 to 40 years or so, which means we’re still very much in it. 

So if you’re someone like me, who doesn’t think about hurricanes all that much unless one is about to come ashore on the U.S. mainland, and who tends to downplay any statistic that begins with “the second earliest,” it might be time to reconsider your attitude. That’s what I’m doing.