Tag: hurricane

Are the Carolinas Ready for Hurricane Florence?

As Hurricane Florence spins toward the Carolina coast, the nation’s attention will be on the disaster readiness and response of governments and the affected communities. Have lessons been learned since the deeply flawed government response to Hurricane Katrina back in 2005?

I examined FEMA and the Katrina response in this study, discussing both the government failures and the impressive private-sector relief efforts.

Last year, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, again exposing all sorts of government failures. Well-known chef José Andrés has a new book on the Maria response. He had an eye-opening experience on the island volunteering on relief efforts with his World Central Kitchen.

The Washington Post’s review of the book says that Andrés saw the flaws of top-down bureaucratic relief efforts and embraces more of a spontaneous order view of effective disaster relief:

With We Fed an Island, chef-and-restaurateur-turned-relief worker José Andrés doesn’t just tell the story about how he and a fleet of volunteers cooked millions of meals for the Americans left adrift on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. He exposes what he views as an outdated top-down, para-military-type model of disaster relief that proved woefully ineffective on an island knocked flat by the Category 4 hurricane.

… ‘My original plan was to cook maybe ten thousand meals a day for five days, and then return home,’ Andrés writes. Instead, Andrés and the thousands of volunteers who composed Chefs for Puerto Rico remained for months, preparing and delivering more than 3 million meals to every part of the island. They didn’t wait for permission from FEMA.

… These grass-roots culinary efforts didn’t always sit well with administration officials or with executives at hidebound charities, in part because Andrés was no diplomat. He trolled Trump on Twitter over the situation on Puerto Rico. He badgered FEMA for large contracts to ramp up production to feed even more hungry citizens. He infamously told Time magazine that the “American government has failed” in Puerto Rico. A chef used to fast-moving kitchens, Andrés had zero patience for slow-footed bureaucracy, especially in a time of crisis.

… After dealing with so much red tape and mismanagement (remember the disastrous $156 million contract that FEMA awarded to a small, inexperienced company to prepare 30 million hot meals?), Andrés wants the government and nonprofit groups to rethink the way they handle food after a large-scale natural disaster. He wants them to drop the authoritarian, top-down style and embrace the chaos inherent in crisis. Work with available local resources, whether residents or idle restaurants and schools. Give people the authority and the means to help themselves. Stimulate the local economy.

‘What we did was embrace complexity every single second,’ Andrés writes. ‘Not planning, not meeting, just improvising. The old school wants you to plan, but we needed to feed the people.’

Andrés and World Central Kitchen have embraced complexity. 

Hail to the chef!



The Hurricane Last Time

As of this writing, Tuesday, September 11, Hurricane Florence is threatening millions of folks from South Carolina to Delaware. It’s currently forecast to be near the threshold of the dreaded Category 5 by tomorrow afternoon. Current thinking is that its environment will become a bit less conducive as it nears the North Carolina coast on Thursday afternoon, but still hitting as a Major Hurricane (Category 3+). It’s also forecast to slow down or stall shortly thereafter, which means it will dump disastrous amounts of water in southeastern North Carolina. Isolated totals of over two feet may be common. 

At the same time that it makes landfall, there is going to be the celebrity-studded “Global Climate Action Summit” in San Francisco, and no doubt Florence will be the poster girl.

There’s likely to be the usual hype about tropical cyclones (the generic term for hurricanes) getting worse because of global warming, even though their integrated energy and frequency, as published by Cato Adjunct Scholar Ryan Maue, show no warming-related trend whatsoever.

Maue’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy index shows no increase in global power or strength.

Maue’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy index shows no increase in global power or strength.

Here is the prevailing consensus opinion of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (NOAA GFDL): “In the Atlantic, it is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on hurricane activity.”

We’ll also hear that associated rainfall is increasing along with oceanic heat content. Everything else being equal (dangerous words in science), that’s true. And if Florence does stall out, hey, we’ve got a climate change explanation for that, too! The jet stream is “weirding” because of atmospheric blocking induced by Arctic sea-ice depletion. This is a triple bank shot on the climate science billiards table. If that seems a stretch, it is, but climate models can be and are “parameterized” to give what the French Climatologist, Pierre Hourdin, recently called “an anticipated acceptable range” of results.

The fact is that hurricanes are temperamental beasts. On September 11, 1984, Hurricane Diana, also a Category 4, took aim at pretty much the same spot that Florence is forecast to landfall—Wilmington, North Carolina. And then—34 years ago—it stalled and turned a tight loop for a day, upwelling the cold water that lies beneath the surface, and it rapidly withered into a Category 1 before finally moving inland. (Some recent model runs for Florence have it looping over the exact same place.) The point is that what is forecast to happen on Thursday night—a major category 3+ landfall—darned near happened over three decades earlier… and exactly 30-years before that, in 1954, Hurricane Hazel made a destructive Category 4 landfall just south of the NC/SC border. The shape of the Carolina coastlines and barrier islands make the two states very susceptible to destructive hits. Fortunately, this proclivity toward taking direct hits from hurricanes has also taught the locals to adapt—many homes are on stilts, and there is a resilience built into their infrastructure that is lacking further north.

There’s long been a running research thread on how hurricanes may change in a warmer world. One thing that seems plausible is that the maximum potential power may shift a bit further north. What would that look like? Dozens of computers have cranked away thousands years of simulations and we have a mixture of results: but the consensus is that there will be slightly fewer but more intense hurricanes by the end of the 21st Century. 

We actually have an example of how far north a Category 4 can land, on August 27, 1667 in the tidewater region of southeast Virginia. It prompted the publication of a pamphlet in London called “Strange News from Virginia, being a true relation of the great tempest in Virginia.” The late, great weather historian David Ludlum published an excerpt:

Having this opportunity, I cannot but acquaint you with the Relation of a very strange Tempest which hath been in these parts (with us called a Hurricane) which began on Aug. 27 and continued with such Violence that it overturned many houses, burying in the Ruines much Goods and many people, beating to the ground such as were in any ways employed in the fields, blowing many Cattle that were near the Sea or Rivers, into them, (!!-eds), whereby unknown numbers have perished, to the great affliction of all people, few escaped who have not suffered in their persons or estates, much Corn was blown away, and great quantities of Tobacco have been lost, to the great damage of many, and the utter undoing of others. Neither did it end here, but the Trees were torn up by their roots, and in many places the whole Woods blown down, so that they cannot go from plantation to plantation. The Sea (by the violence of the winds) swelled twelve Foot above its usual height, drowning the whole country before it, with many of the inhabitants, their Cattle and Goods, the rest being forced to save themselves in the Mountains nearest adjoining, where they were forced to remain many days in great want.

Ludlum also quotes from a letter from Thomas Ludwell to Virginia Governor Lord Berkeley about the great tempest:

This poore Country…is now reduced to a very miserable condition by a continual course of misfortune…on the 27th of August followed the most dreadful Harry Cane that ever the colony groaned under. It lasted 24 hours, began at North East and went around to Northerly till it came to South East when it ceased. It was accompanied by a most violent raine, but no thunder. The night of it was the most dismal time I ever knew or heard of, for the wind and rain raised so confused a noise, mixed with the continual cracks of falling houses…the waves were impetuously beaten against the shores and by that violence forced and as it were crowded the creeks, rivers and bays to that prodigious height that it hazarded the drownding of many people who lived not in sight of the rivers, yet were then forced to climb to the top of their houses to keep themselves above water…But then the morning came and the sun risen it would have comforted us after such a night, hat it not lighted to us the ruins of our plantations, of which I think not one escaped. The nearest computation is at least 10,000 house blown down.

It is too bad that there were no anemometers at the time, but the damage and storm surge are certainly consistent with a Category 4 storm. And this was in 1667, at the nadir of the Little Ice Age.

Reversible Lanes, Not Trains

In the days before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, the state ordered 6.3 million people to leave their homes. As people in the rest of the nation watched videos and photos of bumper-to-bumper northbound traffic on Interstates 75 and 95, while the southbound lanes were nearly empty, most had one of two reactions. Some said, “If only Florida had large-scale passenger train service that could move those people out,” while others asked, “Why aren’t people allowed to drive north on the empty southbound lanes?” 

The aftermath of the storm has already opened a debate over what Florida should do to increase its resilience in the future: build more roads or build more rail lines. The right answer is neither: instead, state transportation departments in Florida and elsewhere need to develop emergency plans to make better use of the transportation resources they already have. 

Rail advocates like to claim that rail lines have much higher capacities for moving people than roads, but that’s simply not true. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved 300,000 people–free of charge–out of the city in what was probably the largest mass transportation evacuation in American history. While impressive, it took the railroad five days to move all of those people on three different routes. Even accounting for improvements in rail capacities in the last century, moving 6 million people out of south Florida by rail would take weeks, not the four days available between Florida’s first evacuation orders and the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

At the same time, the state of Florida could have done more to relieve congestion on major evacuation routes. The most it did was to allow vehicles to use the left shoulder lanes on part of I-75 and part of I-4 (which isn’t even a north-south route), but not, so far as I can tell, on I-95. What the state should have done, since there was very little southbound traffic, was to open up all but one of the southbound lanes of I-75 and I-75 to northbound traffic.

Hurricanes and Global Warming

Discussions about global warming and hurricanes obscure the human tragedies unfolding before our eyes. With climate science being as politicized as it is, we’ve received quite a lot of inquiries as to whether those rushing to blame this on human emissions are onto something, and it’s natural to wonder what’s going on when the news cycle is dominated by storms. The truth of the matter is: we don’t yet have the data to know.

On August 30, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory said:

It is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity.

This update cites research showing a “2 to 11%” increase in hurricane intensity by the end of this century. Given the enormous year-to-year variability in storms, the highest figure would take nearly fifty years to emerge from the noise in the data, and the lowest one—probably over a century.

As we said at the outset, this subject is better treated in a comprehensive fashion after the tragedies of today start to heal. For those of you who are thirsting for answers, I strongly recommend following my colleague here at Cato’s Center for the Study of Science, Ryan Maue, on Twitter. Ryan was one of the first to predict the extent of Harvey’s rainfall; you’ve likely seen his images atop the Drudge Report or journalists citing his work. In fact, the New York Times noted him in their article How to Follow Irmaand we agree.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Can’t Be Blamed on Global Warming

Harvey Is What Climate Change Looks Like: It’s time to open our eyes and prepare for the world that’s coming.” That August 28 Politico article by Slate weatherman Eric Holthaus was one of many trying too hard to blame the hurricane and/or flood on climate change.

Such stories are typically infused with smug arrogance. Their authors claim to be wise and well-informed, and anyone who dares to question their “settled science” must need to have their eyes pried open and their mouths shut.

There will doubtless be similar “retroactive forecasting” tales about Irma, so recent story-telling about Harvey may provide a precautionary warning for the unwary.

I am an economist, not a climatologist.* But blaming Harvey on climate change apparently demands much lower standards of logic and evidence than economists would dare describe as serious arguments.

Atlantic’s climate journalist said, “Harvey is unprecedented—just the kind of weird weather that scientists expect to see more of as the planet warms.” But Harvey’s maximum rainfall of 51.88 inches barely exceeded that from Tropical Storm Amelia in 1978 (48”) and Hurricane Easy in 1950 (45”). And what about Tropical Storm Claudette in 1979, which put down 42 inches in 24 hours near Houston (Harvey took three days to do that)? In such cases, attributing today’s extreme weather to “climate change” regardless of what happens (maybe droughts, maybe floods) is what the philosopher Karl Popper called “pseudoscience.” If some theory explains everything, it can’t be tested and it is therefore not science. (Popper’s favorite examples of pseudoscience were communism and psychoanalysis.)

Seemingly plausible efforts to connect Harvey to climate change are precariously based on another unusual event in 2015–16, not long-term climate trends. In the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer wrote that “Harvey benefitted from unusually toasty waters in the Gulf of Mexico. As the storm roared toward Houston last week, sea-surface waters near Texas rose to between 2.7 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average.” Thank you, 2015–16 El Nino.

Meyer’s source is a single unsourced sentence from “Climate Signals beta” from the Rockefeller Foundation’s “Climate Nexus” project run by Hunter Cutting (“a veteran political director who develops communications strategy”). Perhaps it would be wiser to consult the National Hurricane Center about Gulf temperatures, which shows they are averaging about one degree (F) above the baseline.

Looking back at any unpredicted weather anomaly, “fact-checking” journalists can always count on Michael Mann and Kevin Trenberth to spin some tale explaining why any bad weather (but never good weather!) must surely be at least aggravated by long-term global climate trends. “It’s a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly,” writes Michael Mann. Gulf sea surface temperatures have increased from about 86 degrees to 87 “over the past few decades,” he says, causing “3–5% more moisture in the atmosphere.” He neglected to point out other compensatory things he surely knows, like that the same climate science predicts a more stable tropical atmosphere, reducing the upward motion necessary for hurricanes.

Even The Washington Post’s esteemed Jason Samenow got onto shaky ground, writing that “rainfall may have been enhanced by 6 percent or so, or a few inches.” It would have been nice if he noted that Harvey’s maximum observed rainfall of 51.88 inches is statistically indistinguishable from the aforementioned Amelia’s 48, forty years ago.

In either case, to blame the Gulf’s temperature and moisture in August 2017 on a sustained global increase in water temperatures requires more than theory or “confidence” (faith). It requires evidence.

A Climate of Science Deception

Former Energy Department Undersecretary Steven Koonin caused quite a stir yesterday in an interview with Mary Kissel of The Wall Street Journal when he stated Federal scientists purposefully misled the public about climate change. He recounted that the 2014 National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts in the United States emphasized a dramatic increase in Atlantic hurricane power beginning in 1980. However, this conveniently chosen segment of the historical record does not tell the entire story—the narrative that hurricanes are right now getting more frequent and intense due to climate change just does not stand up to scrutiny.

The offending figure is on Page 42 of the document (reproduced here). It is in Chapter 2 of the report, which is called “Our Changing Climate.”

These are graphs of something called the Power Dissipation Index (PDI) for Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific hurricanes. Note that the data begins in 1970 and ends in 2009. The text explains the beginning date by saying “there is considerable uncertainty in the record prior to the satellite era (early 1970s).”

This is true, but phenomenally disingenuous. Another hurricane scientist, conspicuously absent from the author list, is Chris Landsea of the National Hurricane Center, who developed the Center’s historical hurricane archive, known as HURDAT2. According to Landsea, the problem in the early record (which should be obvious) is that some storms will be missed, not the other way around! In his words, in a 2013 article in Monthly Weather Review, “Some storms were missed, and many intensities are too low in the pre-aircraft reconnaissance era (before 1944 in the western half of the basin) and in the pre-satellite era (before 1972 for the entire basin).

Therefore, prior to 1972, any history is likely to underestimate the PDI rather than overestimate it.

On the Bright Side: Tropical Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal During Warmer and Colder Phases of ENSO and the PDO

While the hypothesis that tropical cyclones will become both more frequent and more intense as planetary temperatures rise has long been debated, real-world evidence has consistently refuted it (see, for example, the many reviews of this subject posted under the heading of Hurricanes at the CO2 Science website). The latest example is the work of Girishkumar et al. (2015), who examined over five decades of tropical cyclone (TC) data from the Bay of Bengal (BoB) in the Indian Ocean. Specifically, the authors “investigated how the relationship between ENSO and TCs activity in the BoB during October–December varies on decadal time scale with respect to PDO.”