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The hurricane wisdom of old nature people

Caribbean Weather with Tropical Low of July 20, 2010

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As some of you may know i’m currently in the Dominican Republic on family / work visit. The looming tropical low that formed over the US Virgin Islands yesterday is showing signs of organization and a tropical depression or possible storm may be in the forecast for Wednesday or Thursday which triggered my curiosity of what our elders here in the DR had to say about heightened tropical activity.

It was rather a revealing wisdom that even for a “seasoned hurricane battered me” rang clear in my ears. I know the SearchAmelia publisher “buried” Mr. Common Sense yesterday but there are still pockets of wisdom left.

Although my Spanish is still in the developing stages and “old Spanish” is even more difficult, the message was clear:” we’ll see an exceptional Hurricane Season this year”. All 4 centennials and 3 respectable late ninety-ers had the same story and…logic.

If their observation is scientific, I leave up to those that require proof that the globe is round and the earth is circling the sun, but the reasoning I got was chilling the least to say.

“When there is more water on land than there is in the ocean and the temperatures of the water are equal to the temperatures on land, the forces of the wind will need to dry the land”.

Even for a lush tropical island like the Dominican Republic where rain is not uncommon the amounts of rain have been staggering in the last two months. Everyone agrees that the amounts of rainfall are exceptional and only seen in such quantities every 30-40 years.

All of my questioned sources, boy and what sharpness of memories I was exposed to,  point to the years 1979 when hurricanes David (cat. 5) and Hortense, 1966 Hurricane Ines cat. 4 and 1930 San Zenon cat. 5 who devastated Santo Domingo had exact similar circumstances as the 2010 soaking weather.

The air temperatures are actually mild for this time of the year although the humidity is extreme, nothing like in Florida, but still exceptionally high.

5 out of my seven interviewees made another observation that struck a cord in my 20 years Caribbean Hurricane experiences: ” When oranges provide 3 harvests before the 6th month is over the abundance cannot last throughout the year as it will wilt the trees before reaching the fifth harvest”.

The orange trees are in their third harvest right now which is two months too early (mid september is normal while the fourth harvest is beginning to mid December.

I know, I sounds very unscientific, yet who are we to question mother nature and can force it to tick like the atomic clock.

These lovely old folks I spoke to today still fear nature and respect its forces, yet leave their faith up to the good Lord, while we scientific buffs try to trick with the “magic” of logic we just buried with Mr. Common Sense.

The 1926 Miami Hurricane

The 1926 Miami Hurricane Put and End to Florida's First Boom

In 1926 the first wave of settlers to booming South Florida was still in full swing. The 1920s was a time of excessive speculation in stocks and real estate and many Americans were borrowing money to buy more stocks and real estate.
There was more money outstanding in loans ($8.5 billion) than there were dollars in actual circulation. And large parts of that money went into developing South Florida. Economic prosperity in the early 1920s had set the conditions for a real estate bubble in Florida. Miami had an image as a tropical paradise and outside investors across the United States began taking an interest in Miami real estate. Due in part to the publicity talents of audacious developers like Carl G. Fisher of Miami Beach, famous for purchasing a huge lighted billboard in New York’s Times Square proclaiming “It’s June In Miami”, property prices rose rapidly on speculation and a land and development boom ensued.

By January 1925, investors were beginning to read negative press about Florida investments. Forbes magazine warned that Florida land prices were based solely upon the expectation of finding a customer, not upon any reality of land value.(?) New York bankers and the IRS both began to scrutinize the Florida real estate boom as a giant sham operation. Speculators intent on flipping properties at huge profits began to have a difficult time finding new buyers. The inevitable bursting of the real estate bubble had begun.

The Prinz Valdemar capsized in Miami Harbour

Several disasters like the sinking of the Prinz Valdemar, a 241-foot, steel-hulled schooner, that sank in the mouth of the turning basin of Miami harbor and the 1926 Miami Hurricane that came ashore in the early morning hours of September 18, making landfall just south of Miami between Coral Gables and South Miami as a devastating Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, took the image of Paradise away from South Florida.

Hurricane Party Time!?

Most of the coastal population had not evacuated, partly because of short warning (a hurricane warning was issued just a few hours before landfall) and partly because the “young” city’s “imported” population knew little about the danger a major hurricane posed. A 15-foot (4.6 m) storm surge inundated the area, causing massive property damage and some fatalities. Then, as the eye of the hurricane crossed over Miami Beach and downtown Miami, many people believed the storm had passed. Some tried to leave the barrier islands, only to be swept off the bridges by the rear eyewall. “The lull lasted 35 minutes, and during that time the streets of the city became crowded with people,” wrote Richard Gray, the local weather chief. “As a result, many lives were lost during the second phase of the storm.”

Inland, Lake Okeechobee experienced a high storm surge that broke a portion of the dikes, flooding the town of Moore Haven and killing many. But this proved only to be just a prelude to the deadly 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, which would cause a massive number of fatalities estimated at 2,500 around the lake alone in a time something could have been done shoring up the levies.

The 1926 Miami Hurricane is in today’s dollars estimated as the costliest natural disaster in US history at $157 billion in damages, almost twice as much as Katrina and 3 times as much as Andrew. The storm’s enormous regional economic impact put an end to the Florida land boom of the 1920s and pushed the region on an early start into the Great Depression.

The University of Miami in Coral Gables, opened its doors for the first time just days after the hurricane passed and it is generally assumed that the University’s athletic and football teams were nicknamed the Hurricanes in memory of this catastrophe.
Another interesting tidbit from these days: The Miami Hurricanes won both their home and away games against the University of Havana in Cuba with a freshman team!

Tropical Systems and Florida’s First Coast

Click on the Picture to enlarge Gulfstream effect

With growing interest I was reading another alarm story about hurricanes and tropical storms potentially hitting the Jacksonville area. I sometimes wonder what has come over this nation that fear mongering is now a favorite pastime. What’s more, the article which came in my inbox from Jacksonville.com (which I applaud and admire) kept talking about the real chance of Jacksonville getting hit by a category 5 hurricane and the enormous potential damage it could do.

Having been through seven hurricanes of category 3 to 5 plus (Hugo and Gilbert were the worst) in my twenty years on Caribbean Islands, I know what a Category 5 can do to your health and livelihood and living at about 100 yards from the ocean here on Amelia Island, a fair warning is enough to catch my attention.

So I took some time to find out the real historical strike picture of hurricanes in this area, remembering the “panic” tropical storm Faye brought about the community two years ago. We were filming right at the leeward side of Sliders Restaurant. Here is the video.

Anyway here are some of the facts about tropical systems having affected the area. Now mind you, statistics tell you that since 1871, the area has seen 46 tropical systems coming by in some degree of intensity.

Since 1950 there were 11 named storms which included Easy, Donna, Cleo, Dora, Gladys, David, Isadore, Chris, Gordon, Tammy and in 2008 Fay. None of these hit Jacksonville, Jacksonville Beach or anywhere north to the Georgia border directly and from the 46 encounters, if we can even call them that, 9 were brushes with the area and 31 were back door storms that had unloaded its fury somewhere on Florida’s Westcoast in the Gulf and died down to Tropical Storm strength before getting here in the area. If we add the typical strength positions of a tropical storm in its 4 quadrants to the equation, we’re talking being hit by 50 mph winds and maybe 12 inches of rain.

Hurricane Dora was the only hurricane ever to hit the First Coast in St.John’s County

Hurricanes that made landfall in the US

The closest storm to ever reach hurricane status for the Jacksonville area was category 2 Hurricane Dora in 1964 which hit St. John’s County on Sept 10. Dora is the only hurricane to make landfall in the First Coast region from the east since record-keeping began in 1851.

Sure there can be some damage to dilapidated structures and shoddy construction. Even some lose debris can get airborne in 70 mph winds, but it’s the luck of the draw to get hit by that or sustain some real damage.
Dora left $2 billion in today’s dollars in damage, yet the writer of the article claims that if another hurricane hits the area the damage could now be about $16.5 billion.
Could, would, will, won’t, personally I’m getting a little perturbed by this doomsday reporting, especially since it gives another reason to insurance companies to claim higher risk and higher premiums.

There is one very simple and quite logical explanation why history counts very few tropical systems hitting this particular region.
It’s called the Gulf Stream. The water temperature of the Gulf Stream which runs about 60 miles of our coastline, averages about 77° F or 25° C throughout the year.
A tropical systems needs a minimum of 80°F to sustain its own engine outflow, preferably actually 82°F. The waters closer to our coastline are cooler than the Gulfstream, gradually dropping as far as to 66°F. In very hot summers this can of course rise substantially and if the GulfStream ever would be forced by the elements to come closer to our shoreline, I would start worrying. But for now…I call all this panic creation another way to keep fear alive among the nation. History shows the facts and the facts tell us that most likely we’re not going to get a direct hurricane hit any time soon, let alone a Category 4 or 5.

The insurance industry initiated report (First American Corp.) that came out last week is just rearranging the numbers so we can all panic when the Atlantic hurricane season this years starts in another 2 months. Reminding us of Katrina’s $80 billion in damages caused by faulty construction is one thing, pointing at the fact that 20 million more people have moved to coastal Atlantic and Gulf areas in the past 20 years is another.

In the recent past, some insurance companies have either considered or flat out stopped offering homeowner policies across the board in Florida because of relentless hurricane exposure. The entire state is actually considered a hurricane risk, but with 53 percent of the U.S. population already living in coastal counties, insurers interested in building market share are writing exorbitant policies in less risky regions such as for example Amelia Island. This area is an absolute profit center for home insurance policies tied to the rest of Florida’s risk exposure. The historic facts are there.

Click to enlarge: Today's Atlantic temperature 66-68°F

I would suggest that if insurance companies have to charge across the board premiums for coastal and flood prone areas, they should either pay premium parts back after a specific threat like a tropical system has passed or use the available data to properly diversify risk zones.

Of course they won’t do this as they are always in the business of building “reserves” for future calamities. Unfortunately sometimes these reserve coffers get so full that we witness atrocities such as American International Group and their no holds barred lifestyles of living with their hands in the till.