In the Eye of the Storm

Let’s cast our minds back to the summer of 2006. By the time hurricane Ernesto moved into the commonwealth in late August, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. Still, the resultant flooding and high winds killed seven people and caused an estimated $118 million in damage. Portions of Coastal Virginia were hit hard, but Ernesto reached beyond greater Hampton Roads, moving well inland. Rainfall of up to 10.6 inches combined with storm surge caused massive flooding along the western shores of the Chesapeake Bay, including tidal sections of neighboring rivers. Homes were flooded, trees were downed, and large swathes of Virginia were without power.

Though Ernesto affected Coastal Virginia as a tropical storm, its reputation was eclipsed by the memory of hurricanes Floyd, Isabel and Irene. Bill Sammler, NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) Warning Coordination Meteorologist, headquartered in Wakefield, emphasizes that it’s never too early to prepare for severe weather of any category: “In Hampton Roads, managing our own impressions and expectations may be the ultimate key to preparedness. If I’m in a flood zone, and a major hurricane threatens, where am I going to go? Lynchburg? Rocky Mount? Set those plans in motion now.”

Here are 6 ways to prepare for a storm.

In Coastal Virginia, we’ve been through some truly influential events, and we may think we know what a real hurricane looks like, but if we were to get a hurricane event that was like Hazel in 1954, the wind impact alone would be devastating. Sammler continues: “People forget that when Isabel and Irene hit Hampton Roads, like Ernesto, they were actually tropical storms from a meteorological perspective, though our area experienced severe impacts. Hazel on the other hand, had 140 mph winds when it made landfall, moving at 40 mph. Hazel moved nearly 500 miles inland before it lost 50 percent of its wind power. If we had a Hazel-type storm hit our area today the impact would be absolutely devastating, with an accompanying loss of electrical power that could triple the impact of we experienced with Isabel.”

So what makes late summer/early autumn prime months for hurricane development?

The Atlantic hurricane season crests in late summer, and the chances for tropical depressions to strengthen into meaningful storms doesn’t die down till late October. In fact, from 1950 to 2013, the 10 most expensive and deadly U.S. hurricanes occurred between August and October. During these peak months the water in the Atlantic is warmer, wind shear is less likely to disrupt storm formation, and tropical waves rolling off the coast of West Africa become more frequent.

Whatever the season, when severe weather threatens, local NWS offices are on guard.

Of Watches and Warnings

One of seven NWS forecast centers serving the mid-Atlantic region, the Wakefield office sits off Hwy 460 near The Virginia Diner. It’s housed in an unassuming brick building that looks more like a local branch library. What sets it apart from the surrounding landscape is the trio of satellite dishes and the gigantic Doppler radar tower occupying the adjacent field. Staffed with meteorologists and related professionals, there are at least two staff members on site 24-7. The office never sleeps.

national weather service satellites

NWS Wakefield makes hourly use of various observation tools, forecast models and simulators, and periodic briefings keep staff abreast of potential trouble brewing. Numerous arrangements of multi-hued computer screens and television monitors display an ever-changing mosaic of data points gleaned from buoys, airport observations, radar, and satellite information. Though these tools are essential, in the end it comes down to human intervention to make it all work. In addition to storm prediction, each day poses unique challenges for staff: wildfire risk, special aviation bulletins, and marine forecasts.

Given the fact that Coastal Virginia is home to the world’s largest naval base, and many transportation, marine, and tourism interests depend upon accurate weather forecasts, the key is to constantly look for ways to increase accuracy; Sammler elaborates, “Every single forecast will have errors. Our challenge is how can we increase accuracy? How do we communicate uncertainty to the public? Visual depictions can often be problematic, especially when communicating even routine weather predictions such as precipitation.” But Sammler is already looking toward a climatic technological future where innovation will increase accuracy: “Take thunderstorms. Now, NOAA’s computer modeling can develop individual lines of thunderstorms with 50–75 percent accuracy. Over the next 10 years I expect that technological advances will allow for smaller-scale storm predictions to be refined to the point where the time and location of severe thunderstorms can be predicted two hours in advance.”

NWS/Wakefield also conducts post-event damage assessments. This is especially valuable with tornadic events where researchers move in to evaluate and log the extent of damage on the ground. Recent examples would be the 2008 Suffolk and 2014 Hampton tornados.

When significant weather events occur, Sammler and his team work to coordinate efforts with entities like the National Hurricane Center, state and local governments and the military. Citizens can follow the storm’s progress online or tune in to one of many NOAA weather radio stations. In Coastal Virginia the broadcast (162.55 MHz) comes from a transmitter located in the town of Driver.

Sammler emphasizes: “The beauty of what we do is that virtually everything that stems from our work is public domain. Despite being a governmental agency, nothing is classified or secret. The public can access all the data we produce. Approximately 90 percent of the information is accessible online. This is a great public benefit. ”

Outreach Efforts Emphasize Education and Promote Preparedness

Sammler stresses NOAA/NWS community outreach programs that serve to create public awareness and promote educational opportunities. One such development is the StormReady program. StormReady brings together local government representatives, business leaders and civic groups, giving them the tools their communities need to survive severe weather—before, during and after the event.

Read this article in its entirety in the August/September issue of Coastal Virginia Magazine.

Next: Here are six ways to prepare for a storm.

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