[an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Feature Main Page
Photo Gallery
On Assignment
Learn More
Multimedia: Global Storms
Multimedia: Birth of Isabel
Special Edition

Find coverage on Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina Special Edition


[an error occurred while processing this directive]
In Hot Water (continued)
By Chris Carroll
Photographs by Tyrone Turner
Last year's record hurricane season may have been just the beginning. Forecasters predict the Atlantic seaboard could be in for decades of relentless pounding.

<< Prev   (3 of 3) 

The combined effect of changes in the AMO and the Atlantic conveyor belt has been dramatic. In the Caribbean, production of cyclones skyrocketed 400 percent. In the entire Atlantic Basin, major hurricanes, with sustained winds of 111 miles an hour (179 kilometers an hour) or higher, increased 150 percent. The intensifying is most pronounced in powerful storms like Ivan, whose winds at times exceeded 155 miles an hour (250 kilometers an hour) as it smashed past Jamaica and headed for landfall near Pensacola.
It was just after midnight on September 16, 2004. Residents of Grande Lagoon who chose to ignore evacuation warnings and ride Ivan out in their upscale homes flanking the Intracoastal Waterway west of Pensacola passed time reading, playing cards with their children, wondering if they had miscalculated.
The cacophony of wind and debris pelting their houses covered up any sound that might signal the approach of the real enemy—not wind, but a wide dome of seawater Ivan had piled up and was pushing toward them in the dark. This was the storm surge, the deadliest part of a hurricane for those living near water. Two men who survived the sudden flooding related this same sequence of events: They looked down first at a wet floor, then at a few inches of water around their feet. Each then opened the front door to a waist-deep onslaught of dirty seawater.
Three others who refused to evacuate the area died when the sea invaded their homes. The search for bodies delayed the return of residents who evacuated and then came back wanting to know what they had lost. For many, that turned out to be everything they didn't take with them when they fled.
In the chaos of the aftermath, one couple in the neighborhood seems somewhat at home. Al and Dean Hoffman have set up camp in a tent trailer outside their devastated ranch house. At the moment, there's enough wood debris heaped against the house, which backs water, to rebuild several docks. A motorboat has pierced a side room. The interior is muck-coated and smells of rotting fish. But the retired couple will not be pushed from the coastline a second time.
"I came back to a concrete pad after Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989, so I can handle this," says Dean Hoffman. "We sure know how to pick 'em, don't we?" adds her husband, Al.
A big topic of conversation in hurricane-flooded communities is FEMA's "50 percent rule." If inspectors from the federal disaster agency determine that a house has sustained more than 50 percent damage, the structure must be rebuilt to the latest state and local codes. This rule protects the government-run National Flood Insurance Program—which pays up to $250,000 for reconstruction—from repeatedly covering repairs to the same house. For Dean and Al the latest codes could require a new house on 10- or 15-foot (3- to 5-meter) pilings. "My God—can you imagine how ridiculous that would be?" Al asks, glancing up, perhaps imagining a ranch house among the trees. There's no way his waterlogged home is more than half done for, he declares.
According to the latest National Hurricane Center updates, which I'm monitoring the morning of September 25 in my Vero Beach hotel room, Jeanne has traversed luxuriously warm water and is now a major hurricane. As I study satellite images of the rotating cloud mass on the NOAA website, I'm perversely pleased that my first hurricane won't be of the garden variety.
I might be less sanguine were I not planning to ride out the storm in an absolute bunker of a house a few miles inland. I'll be at the home of Jonathan Gorham, coastal engineer for Indian River County. His house was built in 2003 to all the latest hurricane codes. Gorham and his wife have also invited two other families to weather the hurricane with them. Their houses were seriously damaged by Frances and might not stand up to Jeanne's pounding.
Our group, assembled and under assault by early evening, has been waiting for the calm of the storm's eye. But sometime after midnight we realize there will be no letup—the eye is passing just south of us. "I've heard you can see the stars come out in the eye," says Mike Bresette, dejected, as he turns in for the night. I'm on a bedroll near the front door, which seems to bow inward with each hard gust. With the rumbling that's coming through the thick walls of the Gorham house, I begin to feel in my bones a measure of the fear many millions have known for as long as humans have lived near oceans.
So I'm deflated to learn some weeks later that for all its fury, the storm, where I was, was perhaps not all it was advertised to be. This news comes from Tim Reinhold, vice president of engineering at the Institute for Business and Home Safety, a research and education organization funded by the insurance industry. Reinhold, a former civil engineering professor, rode out each 2004 Florida hurricane while tending wind gauges and other instruments he set up at houses in the paths of the storms.
Jeanne's maximum sustained wind speed at landfall was 120 miles an hour (190 kilometers an hour). But slightly inland, the best Reinhold's instruments could offer was 87 miles an hour (140 kilometers an hour)—a piddling Category One event. Charley, in August, remained genuinely powerful over land; the others lost significant force.
So what, exactly, is a major hurricane? "There's more than one kind of measurement, especially when we're trying to measure what people went through in the places they live," Reinhold says. But one thing is certain: Last season's devastation could easily pale in seasons to come before the current cycle reverses.
"When you looked at images of Jeanne, Frances, or Ivan, you didn't see a complete doughnut-shaped eye wall like you see in a really powerful hurricane," Reinhold says. "You see that in images of Andrew in '92. Andrew looked like a buzz saw." William Gray and his colleagues, who predicted last year's above-average probability of destruction, have done so again for this year. It may turn out the hurricanes of 2004 were but a wake-up call. The buzz saws might already be winding up far out at sea.

<< Prev   (3 of 3) 

Subscribe to National Geographic.

E-Mail this Page to a Friend