Hurricane Hillary: Was Irma Over-Hyped?

Hurricane forecasting is no more an exact science than election forecasting.  In both cases, the caution of experts is thrown to the wind – so to speak – by partisan news actors.  Just as we heard ad nauseam during the first two hours of coverage on November 8 that Donald Trump had awoken a sleeping giant, the Hispanic vote, and that the GOP had better kowtow to it in the future if it wanted to avoid another crushing defeat, so we were told that Irma would visit death and destruction on Florida and, in particular, would devastate Tampa.

Off course news directors were concerned, legitimately, about lulling viewers into a  false sense of security.  But a lot of the apocalyptic tone of the TV anchors and meteorologists was just good old-fashioned yellow journalism.  The worst-case scenario became the only scenario.  There may have been a little schadenfreude as well, as there was in the coverage of Harvey.  Texas is a deep-dyed red, and Florida was a key swing state that went for Trump.

Tampa (with St. Pete and Clearwater) is the only major city on the Florida Gulf coast.  After hurricanes had targeted New Orleans in 2006 and Houston just two and a half weeks ago, why not the third metropolis on the Gulf?

There are a few reasons why it was unlikely that, despite the size of Irma, an epic disaster would be visited on Tampa.

1. In response to Hurricane Andrew of 1992, Florida adopted the most stringent building codes in the nation.

Cinder block masonry reinforced by concrete pillars replaced wood frame houses, and hurricane-resistant roof tresses were required, along with impact-resisting glass.  Also regulated were the types of roofing material and the adhesives and staples used.  As a result, even in Key West, few if any post-Andrew homes, including those on stilts, went down.  I watched as one CNN reporter drove around Key West looking vainly for something more dramatic to shoot than some debris by the side of the road.

2. Most hurricane damage and deaths are caused by storm surges – 49% of fatalities.  Another 27% are caused by rivers swollen by rain.  Wind by itself accounts for just 8%.  Low-lying coastal cities are vulnerable.  But once a hurricane makes landfall, it will start to degrade.  Tropical storm-strength winds can cause damage and widespread outages, of course, but unless you're outside and unlucky, you're unlikely to be killed or injured. 

In less than an hour after making landfall in Naples, after having first crossed the Keys and then San Marco Island, Irma was deteriorating.  As radar showed, it lost its eye and was generating only tropical storm-strength winds – yellow bands on most radars – except over the Gulf.  Very few reporters pointed this out, or the fact that it seemed to be headed due north and would not go over water and regain strength.  The projected storm surge along the Pinellas coast was only one to three feet.

3. In order to hit Tampa, a storm has to stay in the Gulf, then hook east at the exact right moment to enter Tampa Bay.  St. Petersburg, at the bottom of the bay's upper peninsula, though facing east, is more vulnerable.  It's rare enough for a hurricane to go up the west coast of Florida, as Irma did.  Not one has entered the Bay since Europeans settlers arrived in the 1820s.  The 1921 Tampa hurricane, frequently mentioned by reporters ("Only 10,000 people lived in Tampa then.  Now it has over 3 million."), made landfall in Tarpon Springs, at the upper end of the northern peninsula.  Only four people were killed in Tampa in that storm, and two in St. Pete.

Naples is about 160 miles south of Tampa and well to its east.  A storm making landfall there and heading north would mean that the Tampa Bay area would be on its "good" side, with lower wind velocity and little threat of tornados.  It should not have been a surprise that Irma would be only a Category 1 hurricane as it approached Tampa, and its center would be about 40 miles east of the city.  But how many meteorologists mentioned this as a possibility?  How many mentioned that a Category 1 hurricane "causes no significant damage to most well-constructed permanent structures"?

As we were told repeatedly, Irma was the largest recorded Atlantic hurricane.  It had the potential to have a devastating impact on Florida.  But when the forecast changed Thursday night, taking the hurricane into the Gulf, the media relentlessly continued to plug the doomsday scenario and failed to mention more probable outcomes.

Many of us in the Bay area were inundated by emails and phone calls from anxious friends and relatives who were under the impression that Tampa would be leveled, with hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths.

Reporters, after sticking to the sensationalist storyline long after it was unlikely, did little to disguise their disappointment that there was to be no epic disaster.  It was a bit reminiscent of the chagrin reporters didn't bother concealing on November 8.

Hurricane forecasting is no more an exact science than election forecasting.  In both cases, the caution of experts is thrown to the wind – so to speak – by partisan news actors.  Just as we heard ad nauseam during the first two hours of coverage on November 8 that Donald Trump had awoken a sleeping giant, the Hispanic vote, and that the GOP had better kowtow to it in the future if it wanted to avoid another crushing defeat, so we were told that Irma would visit death and destruction on Florida and, in particular, would devastate Tampa.

Off course news directors were concerned, legitimately, about lulling viewers into a  false sense of security.  But a lot of the apocalyptic tone of the TV anchors and meteorologists was just good old-fashioned yellow journalism.  The worst-case scenario became the only scenario.  There may have been a little schadenfreude as well, as there was in the coverage of Harvey.  Texas is a deep-dyed red, and Florida was a key swing state that went for Trump.

Tampa (with St. Pete and Clearwater) is the only major city on the Florida Gulf coast.  After hurricanes had targeted New Orleans in 2006 and Houston just two and a half weeks ago, why not the third metropolis on the Gulf?

There are a few reasons why it was unlikely that, despite the size of Irma, an epic disaster would be visited on Tampa.

1. In response to Hurricane Andrew of 1992, Florida adopted the most stringent building codes in the nation.

Cinder block masonry reinforced by concrete pillars replaced wood frame houses, and hurricane-resistant roof tresses were required, along with impact-resisting glass.  Also regulated were the types of roofing material and the adhesives and staples used.  As a result, even in Key West, few if any post-Andrew homes, including those on stilts, went down.  I watched as one CNN reporter drove around Key West looking vainly for something more dramatic to shoot than some debris by the side of the road.

2. Most hurricane damage and deaths are caused by storm surges – 49% of fatalities.  Another 27% are caused by rivers swollen by rain.  Wind by itself accounts for just 8%.  Low-lying coastal cities are vulnerable.  But once a hurricane makes landfall, it will start to degrade.  Tropical storm-strength winds can cause damage and widespread outages, of course, but unless you're outside and unlucky, you're unlikely to be killed or injured. 

In less than an hour after making landfall in Naples, after having first crossed the Keys and then San Marco Island, Irma was deteriorating.  As radar showed, it lost its eye and was generating only tropical storm-strength winds – yellow bands on most radars – except over the Gulf.  Very few reporters pointed this out, or the fact that it seemed to be headed due north and would not go over water and regain strength.  The projected storm surge along the Pinellas coast was only one to three feet.

3. In order to hit Tampa, a storm has to stay in the Gulf, then hook east at the exact right moment to enter Tampa Bay.  St. Petersburg, at the bottom of the bay's upper peninsula, though facing east, is more vulnerable.  It's rare enough for a hurricane to go up the west coast of Florida, as Irma did.  Not one has entered the Bay since Europeans settlers arrived in the 1820s.  The 1921 Tampa hurricane, frequently mentioned by reporters ("Only 10,000 people lived in Tampa then.  Now it has over 3 million."), made landfall in Tarpon Springs, at the upper end of the northern peninsula.  Only four people were killed in Tampa in that storm, and two in St. Pete.

Naples is about 160 miles south of Tampa and well to its east.  A storm making landfall there and heading north would mean that the Tampa Bay area would be on its "good" side, with lower wind velocity and little threat of tornados.  It should not have been a surprise that Irma would be only a Category 1 hurricane as it approached Tampa, and its center would be about 40 miles east of the city.  But how many meteorologists mentioned this as a possibility?  How many mentioned that a Category 1 hurricane "causes no significant damage to most well-constructed permanent structures"?

As we were told repeatedly, Irma was the largest recorded Atlantic hurricane.  It had the potential to have a devastating impact on Florida.  But when the forecast changed Thursday night, taking the hurricane into the Gulf, the media relentlessly continued to plug the doomsday scenario and failed to mention more probable outcomes.

Many of us in the Bay area were inundated by emails and phone calls from anxious friends and relatives who were under the impression that Tampa would be leveled, with hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths.

Reporters, after sticking to the sensationalist storyline long after it was unlikely, did little to disguise their disappointment that there was to be no epic disaster.  It was a bit reminiscent of the chagrin reporters didn't bother concealing on November 8.

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