Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What I learned from TS Debby

My friend Chuck Hagan, Logistics Chief for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, says that if you can still count the number of disasters you've worked, then you haven't been in the business that long. With the aid of the National Hurricane Center website, I figured out that Tropical Storm Debby was the 34th storm that I have worked. Of those 34 storms, 19 were Tropical Storms and 15 were hurricanes. I guess that means that 17 years in the disaster business isn't that long.

I learn something from every disaster and I learned a lot from Debby. What is disturbing to me is that I keep relearning the same lessons. You can't say that it's "just" a tropical storm or "just" a category 1 hurricane. This is where my experience screws me up, where I remember all those tropical storms and category 1 hurricanes that unrolled uneventfully while I sat bored in the state EOC. Every storm is unique. Every disaster is different in some important way.

Every storm is unique. Every disaster is different. We should put those phrases on a poster and post them in every EOC.

Let's go back to fundamental meteorology (I completed 2 1/2 days of meteorology classes at the Governor's Hurricane Conference in May. I guess I didn't listen well).  Tropical cyclones generate four principal threats: surge, wind, tornadoes and flooding. The Saffir-Simpson Category of a storm categorizes the hazard from only one of the threats: wind. For each storm we also need to analyze the potential for damage from surge, tornadoes and flooding.

This was the rainfall forecast we received in the State EOC from the State Meteorologist on Monday afternoon, June 25th: "Locally heavy rainfall of potentially up to 6-12 inches over North Florida, 4-8 inches in Central Florida, and 3-5 inches across South Florida through the next few days will lead to flooding of some areas. Isolated storm total amounts may reach up to 25 inches in North Florida."

This was two sentences in a very complete and detailed report (Note: I am not blaming the meteorologist). The main focus, as with all tropical systems, was on the track and the potential for surge. I wasn't the only one focusing on the wrong thing. Later in the week, during a county conference call with the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service Offices, I heard a County Emergency Manager ask where the eye of the storm would impact the coast. The NHC forecaster correctly noted that the threat from Debby was not from the eye but from the intense rain bands many miles from the center of the storm.

The key phrase of the week, of the entire storm was: " Isolated storm total amounts may reach up to 25 inches in North Florida." Somehow, I don't remember that phrase. 25 inches of rain anywhere is going to cause problems. I started to get a clue Monday night while watching the Weather Channel, when the on-air meteorologist started talking about the "unbelievable" amounts of rain that was falling in "isolated" areas of North Florida.

Suwannee County, at the intersection of I-75 and I-10, with a County seat in Live Oak, was one of those isolated areas receiving an unbelievable amount of water. At 6 A.M. on June 26 Suwannee County, which had partially activated at 3 A.M., delivered a two sentence situation report to the State EOC: "Suwannee County is evacuating many many houses within the County as well as City of Live Oak, US Hwy 90 and Pine is waist deep... We are contacting local air boat owners and school bus persons to assist with evacuations."

That got my attention. I looked up US Hwy 90 and Pine St on the map and realized that it was in the center of the city.

Does any of this sound familiar? How about Irene, you people in the Northeast? While the World focused on the eye of Irene heading for the coast of New Jersey and downtown NYC, the enormous rain bands in advance of the storm began to drop a record breaking amount of rain on the inland states from Pennsylvania to Vermont. A NOAA forecaster at this year's National Hurricane Conference pointed out that that the ensuing rainfall amounts were accurately forecast 5 days in advance, when Irene was sitting on the Bahamas. The forecast also noted that these same areas of the mid-Atlantic and New England had already received considerable rainfall.

Yet, later in the Conference, a Vermont emergency manager described his surprise when an idyllic stream rose in fury at Irene's assault and inundated his County EOC. I shook my head at him at the time. Now I'm shaking my head at myself.

Every storm is unique. Every disaster is different.