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19 Years after Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Irene Provides a New Reminder

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Satellite image of 2011 Hurricane Irene.

An enhanced satellite image of Hurricane Irene passing over Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Credit: NOAA.

Today, August 24, is the 19th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, one of the most destructive U.S. hurricanes on record and only the third Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale [leaves this blog] to ever make landfall in the U.S. On the anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which produced peak winds of 164 miles per hour, another hurricane threatens our coast: Hurricane Irene.

Even if you didn’t know about the storm named Irene [leaves this blog] that recently passed over the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the name Hurricane Irene might sound familiar because there was another storm of the same name that made landfall in Florida in 1999. For more information on the status of the current Hurricane Irene, go to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center website  [leaves this blog].

The previous Hurricane Irene formed in the Caribbean Sea on October 12,1999 and made landfall as a hurricane in Key West and Cape Sable, Fla., before moving offshore near Jupiter, Fla. Its winds peaked at 110 mph before encountering cooler North Atlantic waters and slowly dissipating but not before causing an estimated $900 million in damage in Florida alone and 8 indirect deaths in the U.S. It could have been much worse, and if it had been, the World Meteorological Organization would have retired the name Irene permanently from its list of future storm names, as it did with Andrew and Katrina.

While it is interesting to reflect on the coincidence of two storms with the same name threatening the same region of our coast, I have a serious point here: Tropical storms are a very real threat to life and property.

We All Rely on NOAA during Disasters

While I work as a scientist for NOAA, I don’t forecast storms or severe weather. That duty and responsibility belongs to my NOAA colleagues in the National Weather Service. I’m an environmental and marine scientist by education and a NOAA emergency responder by vocation. I’ve lived along the Gulf of Mexico most of my adult life, and like you, I rely on the dedicated women and men of the NOAA National Hurricane Center and my local NOAA Weather Forecast Office to provide me the best early warnings so that I can both prepare to protect my home and family and prepare to respond as emergency manager.

As an emergency responder for more than two decades, I truly hate oil and chemical spills, and probably most of all, I hate severe tropical weather. However, I believe so strongly in our mission to protect the public, the responders, and the environment, that I have made emergency response my career. I might marvel at the complexity and immense size of such natural events as hurricanes, but I do fear hurricanes. I’m not paralyzed by this fear but instead intensely motivated to prepare and respond.

Storms of Motivation

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina passed over the Louisiana Mississippi Delta before again making landfall on the northern Gulf of Mexico coast near Gulfport, Miss. The near-complete devastation left in the wake of this powerful storm destroyed communities, paralyzing critical ports, waterways, offshore oil and gas production, and industry. The financial impact of the storm has been estimated at over $80 billion, but such losses pale against the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina that left 1,836 known dead, hundreds of thousands of people homeless, and countless lives changed forever.

I remember being at the Emergency Operations Center and consoling a young woman crying in a hallway. She had been working the phone bank receiving emergency calls, some from people trapped in their attic as the waters continued to rise from New Orleans’ failed levees. I had never felt so helpless nor so motivated listening to her. After just a few minutes, her break was over, and she returned to the phones. Across NOAA, women and men like her were stepping up during the emergency: evaluating damage, assisting in rescue operations, and assessing imminent threats to the public.

Even after this immediate emergency phase slowed, the response and recovery effort continued to deal with the hundreds of oil spills, thousands of hazardous material containers in waterways, and sunken vessels and marine debris that littered the coastal zone of three states.

This Is Hurricane Season

What path will the second Hurricane Irene take? What will the threat be to our coast and our coastal communities? I don’t have a crystal ball, so I’ll keep watching NOAA’s updated trajectory forecast [leaves this blog] to plan and prepare. I’ll also be coordinating with Brad Benggio, NOAA’s Regional Scientific Support Coordinator for the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. His job is to provide scientific and technical counsel on the best course of action during emergencies such as hurricanes and oil spills. I would venture a guess that Benggio has similar feelings about storms as I do after surviving and responding to many hurricanes, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Hurricane Andrew left a concrete tie beam on a car, among other damage, in Naranja Lakes, Fla. Credit: NOAA National Weather Service.

Hurricane Andrew caused $26.5 billion of damage in the U.S. and claimed 23 lives [leaves this blog]. This is hurricane season—never take it lightly. As part of our preparedness for emergency response, we plan for the worst and hope for the best. If you live in an area potentially threatened by coastal storms, know the evacuation route. It could save your life.

For additional information on hurricanes and planning, visit the NOAAWatch website  [leaves this blog] and click on the Hurricane/Tropical Weather and Storm Surge and Coastal Flooding themes on the right side of the page.

Author: Charlie Henry

Charlie Henry currently serves as the Director for NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. The center’s mission is to establish an unprecedented regional presence and expand federal capacity to plan for and respond to all hazards. Henry has more than twenty-five years of environmental assessment and spill response experience beginning with the 1985 Arco Anchorage incident near Anacortes, Washington. Henry has extensive on-scene response experience including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1991 Kuwait oil fires, the 2000 Tanker Jessica oil spill in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, and the hundreds of oil and chemical spills in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the northern Gulf of Mexico coast in 2005. During the more recent Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, Henry served as the lead NOAA scientific advisor to the Federal On-Scene Coordinator within Unified Command.

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