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Weathering The Tropical Storm

Is there a silver lining to Hurricane Florence?

Hurricanes are one the most devastating types of natural disaster there is. Impossible to control, utterly destructive, and leaving nothing but havoc in their wake. We can neither control nor prevent hurricanes, but we can anticipate them. In 2018 the Atlantic hurricane season is predicted to run from June 1st to November 30th. This season is forecast to be slightly above and cover the areas of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

Not all storms and hurricanes make landfall, but some do; one example being Hurricane Florence on September 14th 2018. Hurricane Florence varied in strength, before making landfall near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, as a category 1 hurricane. At least five people died while Hurricane Florence moved towards South Carolina. Those five deaths were only the beginning.

American hurricanes are categorized on a scale of 1 to 5, known as the Saffir-Simpson Scale. Each category has a list of properties awarded to it. For example, a category 3 hurricane is considered a major hurricane and can have centre pressures that vary from 945 to 965 mbar, with sustained winds that go from 111 to 130 mph. Ultimately, this means that a change of 1 mph can either upgrade or downgrade a hurricane, without there being any real change of the intensity of the storm. The biggest danger is not necessarily the strength of the wind, but more accurately the amount of water.

Hurricane Florence viewed from space. Source: Wikimedia Commons

So, while Hurricane Florence was downgraded due to less powerful wind strength, it did not change the fact that it was bringing massive quantities of water. On September 10th, Hurricane Florence was classified as a category 4 hurricane, but by the time it made landfall  four  days later, it had been downgraded all the way down to a category 1. The downgrading meant that the wind speeds had decreased, but it didn’t mean that Florence wasn’t dangerous. Many people chose to stay in their homes despite government warnings to evacuate, and later had to be evacuated from the areas due to the flooding Hurricane Florence brought.

Hurricane Florence had a duration of little more than two weeks, and passed through three states before dissipating. Here is a quick overview of Hurricane Florence’s lifespan:

  • September 1st: Hurricane Florence starts as a tropical storm around 155 miles west of the Cabo Verde Islands.
  • September 4th– 12th: Hurricane Florence varies between being a tropical storm and a major category 4 hurricane.
  • September 14th: Hurricane Florence makes landfall as a category 1 hurricane in North Carolina. At least 5 people die while Hurricane Florence moves towards South Carolina, including a mother and her infant baby. Later that afternoon Hurricane Florence gets downgraded to a tropical storm.
  • September 16th: Hurricane Florence weakens into a tropical depression.

Hurricane Florence died out rather quickly after only a few days on land but still caused severe damage. Megan Baxtor, a 39-year-old North Carolina native, told of how the town of Durham, N.C, had experienced severe flash flooding the day after Hurricane Florence passed through.

Source: NPS Photos

Despite Hurricane Florence causing minimal damage to the town of Durham, what the hurricane left in its wake was the real trouble. In anticipation of Hurricane Florence, the students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were encouraged to evacuate school grounds, where both Ingvil Østhassel, 22, and Emilie Guillou, 19, normally study and reside.

Emilie Guillou, who herself evacuated to Clayton, N.C, helped people in Wilmington, N.C, which had been hit much more severely . Hurricane Florence had hovered over Wilmington for a long while and caused extensive damage to the town. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington stayed closed until the 6th of October, when all on-campus residents could come back to the campus. Ultimately, Hurricane Florence had a death toll of at least 51 people spread throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

One of the questions that is being asked right now is whether there is a need for a new scale to assess hurricanes. People often underestimate the real danger that a category 1 or 2 hurricane possess and opt out of evacuating their area in favour of staying where they can assess and handle the damage. Of course, Megan Baxtor argues, some individuals simply have to stay due to economic factors such as needing to go into work. So, though they might evacuate their family, they themselves must stay behind. Others argue that perhaps we simply need to widen the current scale with a 6th category.

CNN meteorologist, Chad Myers, argues against that logic, by stating that the better solution might very well be creating a new system. Myers’ suggestion is to rate the threats of each storm, which for Hurricane Florence would have been wind, storm surge, and flooding. The current scale, The Saffir-Simpson Scale, is a measuring tool that combines the estimated property damage and the estimated storm surge that is expected by landfall and allows us to fit hurricanes into 5 different categories. The Saffir-Simpson scale is, however, commonly more and more criticized and experts often discuss replacing the current scale with a new, more understandable one.

The idea to re-invent the hurricane scale may be more relevant than ever, with climate change, rising sea levels and an increasingly unruly climate environment. Within the last year alone there have been several major hurricanes; Harvey in Texas, Maria in Puerto Rico, Florence in the Carolinas and most recently Michael in Florida. Yet the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, remains skeptical of climate change, claiming that we don’t know whether our current levels of global warming would have happened with or without man.

Trump argues that he is not denying climate change, but he also believes that it could just as easily ‘go back’. These statements were given on 60 minutes in an interview with Lesley Stahl. President Trump did visit the affected areas after Hurricane Florence on the 19th of September where he saw first-hand the damage that had been caused. Yet, he remains a skeptic, claiming that scientist also have a political agenda.

Regardless of the Presidents skepticism, America might very well have to consider abandoning the Saffir-Simpson scale in favor of a more specific categorization system. So, it would seem there is a silver lining to Hurricane Florence’s short-lived existence. After all proper and accurate hurricane awareness could mean the difference between life and death.

Lærke Christiansen

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