Hurricane devastation has been traced to lots of things, from global warming to La Niña to overbuilding on the nation’s coastlines. But the Saffir-Simpson scale?
“Somewhere along the line back in the ’70s or early ’80s, someone got the idea to attribute a particular storm surge type with a category,” says Chris Hebert, referring to the popular five-category system by which most of us gauge hurricanes. Saffir-Simpson ranks storms according to wind speeds, the aspect of hurricanes that people find most terrifying. In most cases, however, it’s the storm surge along coastlines that causes the most damage and kills the most people, and that surge depends on the storm’s size, not the speed of its winds.
“People couldn’t understand how a Category 3 could cause a larger storm surge and more damage than Camille, a Category 5 that hit in 1969,” Hebert says. The Category 3 in question was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed more than 1,800 people, the costliest disaster in US history.
A native of Louisiana, the state that lost the most lives to Katrina, Hebert is these days a hurricane expert at StormGeo, a private weather-tracking service based in Houston that many companies rely on—oil and gas firms among them—to provide early warning and logistical planning recommendations, no small thing when you’ve got billions of dollars invested in oil wells throughout the Gulf of Mexico. But Hebert’s been fascinated by storms since his early years. Very early years.
“I started tracking hurricanes when I was about four years old,” he says of his Lafayette childhood in the ’50s and ’60s. “My mother got me into it.” He got his first glimpse of nature’s fury at a young age, too, when 1964’s Hurricane Hilda struck the central Louisiana coast. A strong Category 3, that storm killed 38 people in several states, and was followed a year later by Hurricane Betsy, a Category 4 that did more than $1 billion in damages.
As for his connections to the energy industry, they go back to Hebert’s first job out of college, as a data collector on an oil platform off the coast of Argentina. “I wanted to be a weather forecaster. I didn’t want to do research,” he remembers, but the experience would prove valuable anyway. While StormGeo relies on data and forecast models similar to those employed by other weather trackers, it customizes that data for a company with, say, an offshore oilrig in harm’s way. “They’ll have very detailed hurricane-response plans,” says Hebert. “These response plans may start five days prior to the actual arrival of the hurricane. It’s quite different than dealing with the public.”
Fortunately for that public, weather tracking has vastly improved since Hebert left Texas A&M in the ’70s, ultimately settling in Houston. “When I started, we didn’t really have computers,” he says. And even once they did, a decade later, the models could only predict storm tracks two days hence. “Now, we have models that go out for two weeks or more.”
Anyone who lives in areas impacted by hurricanes knows the cone of uncertainty that the National Weather Service refers to when predicting the paths of storms. They know, too, that such cones are shrinking all the time, as data increases and technology improves. Still, an accurate prediction of a storm’s size remains elusive, despite its importance. But help is on the way, Hebert says, in the form of a weather satellite that the US is launching next March to analyze storms from the inside out, leading to a clearer picture of how they work and how large they might become.
Like most hurricane prognosticators, Hebert believes that this hurricane season, just like the previous few, will not be an especially active one, with far fewer than 12 storms, the average over the last 25 years. “In the last five years, we’ve had only three hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. In the previous 10-year period, we had about 20 hurricanes and about five to 10 major hurricanes in the Gulf.”
Most believe it will be another few years before another busy hurricane season, again, Hebert included, although he cautions that such assessments depend on your perspective. Last year, for instance, “if you were on the island of Bermuda and got hit by a Category 3 hurricane, then a Category 2 five days later, you might argue against that being a quiet year.”
Hebert also remembers seasons similar to this one, in which below-average storm numbers were predicted. Those predictions were correct, but the storms that did form were devastating. The 1983 season saw only three named storms, but one of them was Alicia, which originated in the Gulf and went on to wreak havoc in the Houston-Galveston area. Hebert believes that 2015 could see the same sort of storm. “I think we have to watch, for this season, activities developing closer in where the water is still very warm and the wind shear might be a little bit less.”
The closer a storm forms to land, the less warning for the public—yet another reason not to use hurricane classifications as a measure of a storm’s danger. “You have to get away from that Saffir-Simpson scale and thinking that only a Category 3 or greater is something to be worried about,” Hebert explains. After all, Hurricane Ike was only a Category 2 storm. Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 never reached hurricane strength, and the recent Memorial Day floods didn’t even originate in the tropics.
So don’t let down your guard when forecasters predict a quiet year for Atlantic storms, warns Hebert. “Quiet is relative.”