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If you missed them over the weekend, scroll down the main page here and you'll see several discussions on the landfall of Hurricane Dennis - reports from Cuba and the United States. Forecasted to slam the Florida coast as a category 3 or 4 storm, the post-landfall photos and video reveal damage consistent with a strong tropical storm with sporadic gusts to hurricane intensity. Coincidentally, this is exactly what wind sensors in the path of the storm detected - on shore and off.
Whether Dennis was a strong tropical storm or a weak hurricane is debatable. What's obvious now is that at and before landfall it wasn't a cat 3 hurricane - not even cat 2. A bad forecast? Not in all regards. Strong tropical storms do cause damage - As Dennis approached the Pensacola area flooding occurred in the rain bands over Apalachicola miles away from the center. Tornadoes likely formed inland. So arguably from the point of view of those in coastal communities the public interest was served - as far as people were made aware that something was going to happen, and they were prepared for the worst. And kudos to the National Hurricane Center, who nailed the expected path of the storm from a few days away.
But what about next time? Sensational type reporting - and exaggeration of minor storms into major stories - contributes to the lack of response on the part of many to a major storm when one does come along. People who erroneously believe they've survived a cat 3-4 storm will be in for a rude surprise when a real one moves in.
Because here's where things become dicey. As we noted before Dennis made landfall, no matter what would actually happen the media would report the Hurricane Center's landfall intensity forecast as if it had occurred - without regard to what was actually happening. (This is true only for forecasts of strong storms - they'd love to castigate the Hurricane Center for missing one - and that contributes to the problem too.)
Media hysteria is a small part of the feedback loop that accompanies one of these events. Consider this: the Hurricane Center makes a forecast. Media reports proclaim it as reality - although the NHC doesn't rely on those reports to evaluate it's performance it certainly makes it more difficult for them to stand up and say things were other than reported.
This is a good example of poor media coverage - an AP report from landfall at Guantanamo Cuba: Packing devastating 145 mph winds, Hurricane Dennis tore down a guard tower at the U.S. detention camp for terror suspects as it stalked Cuba's south coast and moved Friday toward the heart of the largest Caribbean island.
Sound impressive? The "guard tower" was actually a life guard platform knocked over by surf on the beach.
And here are some quotes from stories that appeared as the eye was moving on shore, before anyone knew what was going on.
Reuters: As it came ashore, Dennis was a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, a hurricane with winds of up to 130 mph (208 kph) capable of causing serious damage.
This made it as strong as Hurricane Ivan, which killed 25 people, caused $14 billion in damages and destroyed or damaged 13 oil drilling platforms in the Gulf in September. Earlier Sunday, Dennis was a stronger Category 4 storm.
The AP: The storm crossed land near the same state-line spot where Ivan arrived, pounding beachfronts already painfully exposed by denuded dunes, flattened neighborhoods and piles of rubble that threatened to turn into deadly missiles.
This sort of reporting is pure sensationalism. And it creates an illusion that the storm was as predicted - even though real data shows otherwise.
And the real problem kicks in when those who are responsible for the forecast - and who know what really happened - decide to stick to their guns and declare themselves right. No one expects weather forecasters to be right all the time - when they're wrong it's hardly newsworthy. There was no crime committed here, not even negligence. And no doubt with state of the art (or science, if you prefer) techniques and tools forecasters did the best job humanly possible. But by not admitting to the reality of what happened they excuse themselves from the responsibility of determining what did go wrong - and how to do better next time. Instead we get explanations like "it moved faster" or "improved building codes" - claims that will set us up for a disaster of epic proportions some day.
And here's the type of question that will never be answered: Aircraft measurement of winds indicated a strong storm. If those measurements were accurate, why didn't those winds reach the surface? Will they next time?
Given time you could come up with enough such questions to keep a platoon of university researchers busy for years, but instead we'll get nothing. Everything went exactly right. Science suffers, and knowledge isn't expanded.
Now let's move to the global scale. Is global warming real? The number of strong hurricanes this year will be a data point cited as evidence for or against global warming claims. Unfortunately, it's a tainted data set. I'm not taking a position on that topic here either way - just pointing out that it's unfortunate that bad data will be part of the equation.
Anyway - as Hurricane Dennis fades from the news and lingers only as a data point in the global warming record books we'll bid farewell to weather reporting in Mudville.
Til next time...
Sounds like the media habits in covering Iraq are spreading to other topics. Not good.Posted by Patrick Chester at July 12, 2005 01:04 AM
I agree with all of your points, all the more so since I still own a house in that neighborhood (outside Eglin AFB) and I require ACCURATE reporting of tropical weather!
Also, for a good summation about global warming and the b*stardization of science, try "State of Fear" by Michael Crichton, released last year.
TSgt Cas, USAF (ret)
Does anyone have a vid of Anderson Cooper on CNN's Dennis coverage. There was one point where that nacny boy ran for his life from aflying Ramada sign. The sign was made from vynil, you know thos cloth-like signs they put up now a days?
The sky is falling?!? LOLPosted by Geraldo at July 12, 2005 05:13 AM
I just thought the media wanted to go to Florida for a little Rest and relaxation!... They have a tendancy to become preoccupied with one story! When Pope John Paul II died they were fixated on the lines of pilgrams that past his body!... We hardly got to hear a word about Sandy Berger and the living!...Posted by Zsa Zsa at July 13, 2005 08:03 PM
If you don't think Dennis was a real hurricace you need to check out my neighborhood in Pensacola FL. The airport just north of my house clocked 93 mph winds. Fortuneately, there was no storm surge with Dennis and nobody got killed. I had to get a tree off my house though. Just because the national media hypes hurricanes doesn't mean that they don't cause real harm. From the gas panic to living with no electricity for three days, hurricanes definitely suck.
On a scale of 1-10 with Ivan as a 10, Dennis was only a 2. Check out pensacolanewsjournal.com and look at the pics.