Hurricane Center Director Deconstructs “Lite” Season

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

It’s over. Put a fork in it. The 2015 Hurricane season is done. You get six months to exhale unless something crazy stupid happens! No more looking over the shoulder out into the Atlantic or Gulf wondering if that puff of clouds might grow into the next named storm. No more wondering if this might be the year your town or city’s luck runs out.

Unfortunately we, the collective we who live in harm’s way, don’t really seem to wonder near enough. And if you’re not wondering then you’re certainly not doing much to prepare. Over the years, study after study has shown most folks living along the coastal United States from Maine to Texas don’t give hurricanes much thought until one is about to beat down their door.

And that is troubling to the experts. I talked recently with National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb. “I fear that so many coastal and inland residents at risk to wind and water hazards have forgotten how to get ready for the next hurricane season. We must take action now to survive the storm and be resilient in the aftermath.”

Sadly, it’s the same refrain Knabb’s predecessors shared with me over and over again, decade after decade. Whether it was Bob Sheets or Max Mayfield or Bill Read or Jerry Jarrell and all the way back to Neil Frank the fear was people were not paying attention. Bottom line, not much has changed. The directors talk, we don’t listen.

Sure there are spikes in attention the season after a big one hits like an Andrew, Hugo, or Katrina. But then you get a few years in a row of relative calm and we, that collective we again, fall back into our old complacency. For every Hurricane Center director, complacency was the first ingredient in that recipe for disaster.

Knabb says one of his great frustrations is that it really doesn’t take a whole lot of heavy lifting to be ready, “Here’s a start to your hurricane resilience to do list: create an evacuation plan, buy supplies, update insurance, including flood, and strengthen your home.”

So, why put it off? Now that you can exhale, now that the season is over, there’s no better time to get your plan together. For thirty-five years going back to David and Frederick in 1979, I have covered hurricanes. The common denominator in every, single storm was last minute panic. There were no exceptions. You’ve seen the images, cars backed up for miles as people flee the storm. Supermarkets wiped out. How about the long, long endless lines that snaked around gas stations? The guy with the plywood sheets roped down to his compact car. And that’s just before the storm hits! Really? Do you look forward to that?

No one can tell you what next season will bring. Who could have predicted Florida, the peninsula that sticks out like a sore thumb would have gone ten years without a hurricane? Director Knabb says that doesn’t change his outlook, “I don’t know how much longer we have until we get another Florida hurricane, but they’re coming back at some point. I live in Florida, and I’m going to continue to plan every year as if my house could be hit by a hurricane.”

2015 was an El Nino year. Strong winds helped keep a lid on hurricane activity and shielded the U.S. mainland. But as Knabb says, it didn’t shield the Bahamas from Joaquin. “Do you think the people in the Bahamas care about how many numbers of storms there were this year? They care that they got hit. And that really is at the end of the day all that matters. And we can get hit in any year. We can get hit in any era, El Nino or not, and everybody tends to look for this thing that they can hang their hat on and say ‘ok, this season it’s not my problem’, but it is our problem every year.”

Here’s a case in point from the Zarrella personal experience archives. This hurricane season ended with eleven named storms. The last was November’s Hurricane Kate which turned away from land. Thirty years ago, the 1985 season ended with eleven named storms. You know the name of the eleventh? Kate. It too was a November hurricane. But, it didn’t turn out to sea.

My crew and I were in an RV. I probably should have thought that one through a little more! But, back in those days, the dark ages of television, we didn’t have satellite trucks lined up every few miles along the coastline. The RV was our production facility on wheels. We loaded it with food, camera equipment, and edit machines. We could shoot, write, and edit our stories all in one place and then drive to a feed point. It worked just fine until November 21.

We were heading down a two lane road towards Mexico Beach, Florida in the Panhandle. Problem was category two Kate got there first. So here we are in this RV as the storm comes ashore. Pine trees are snapping. The rain hit the windshield so hard and heavy that you could see absolutely nothing. It was a white out. The RV was trembling. Looking out the side window, I saw the tin roof of a barn lift off, then sail across a field until it was blown to bits.

My cameramen Doug Hart and Rudy Marshall were yelling, “We’ve got to get back to that house we saw up the road.” The roar of the storm outside was so loud you had to yell. My editor Steve Sonnenblick was behind the wheel. He began backing the RV up the road. There was no way we could turn around. The wind and rain was hitting us head on. If we attempted to turn, the RV would have been broadsided, and I have no doubt, would have flipped.

I don’t know how far we drove in reverse. It may have been a half a mile or so. But when you are driving in reverse on a two lane road in the middle of a hurricane, it takes a whole heck of a lot longer than you want! When we got close enough, we left the RV on the side of the road, ran for the house, and started banging on the front door. The husband and wife were more than a little bewildered seeing four guys standing on their porch, but they graciously let us in to ride out the storm.

The point is, as Knabb and all the other National Hurricane Center Directors have repeated until they were blue in the face, you have to be ready. You need a plan whether it’s June, November, or anytime in between. Why risk your life or the lives of your loved ones. No one has a crystal ball. No one can tell you when or if. Director . Knabb says, “We learned this season that you can have really, really horrible impacts in what had been forecast to be a below average year and what has been an El Nino year.”

And by the way, we never rented an RV again to cover a hurricane!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s