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Preparedness in Light of Hurricane Season

At the beginning of Sept., meteorologists and experts became concerned about the development of a storm to the east of the Dominican Republic. According to this storm map by Weather Underground, the tropical storm quickly intensified into a Category 5 major hurricane that looked like it was heading for the Carolinas. This storm has since been named ‘Lee.’ The Category 5 ultimately changed its path, downgrading to a Category 3 storm and taking a sharp turn north. The storm missed all populated areas in the Caribbean and United States and is instead aiming for the eastern tip of Canada.

The U.S. federal government preemptively sent relief teams and supplies to Puerto Rico in anticipation of the damage Lee could have caused. Storm swells in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have created dangerous surf conditions and rip currents, but compared to the predicted damage that would have struck the territories if Lee had made landfall, the damage is admittedly minor. The storm is expected to continue to create unsafe surf conditions along the East Coast. Despite the storm missing the East Coast, the idea of a Category 5 storm hitting the Carolinas has potentially raised the question of preparedness in the event of a hurricane.

Lee’s intense power, with wind speeds of 165 miles per hour at one point, has been attributed to record-high water temperatures in the Atlantic. Following a season of record-high temperatures across the globe, this near miss may be a sign that climate change and its effect on water temperatures could have repercussions for coastal states. Lee, the thirteenth named storm so far in an above-average hurricane season, comes less than a month after Hurricane Hilary became the first hurricane to strike California since 1997’s Hurricane Nora.

To understand the pattern of storm intensification over the past decade, one needs to look at the first sign of this phenomenon 12 years ago: Hurricane Sandy. Sandy, similar to Lee, took an abrupt and sharp turn and started to weaken. But instead of heading out to sea, Sandy restrengthened to a Category 1 storm and veered directly into New York and New Jersey. Britannica estimates the intense damage from the storm cost the U.S. more than $65 billion. The storm's unusual movement has been attributed to abnormally high water temperatures disrupting the prevailing westerlies, the winds pushing from East to West between 30 to 60 degrees latitude, which usually push storms East and out to sea. The disruption of expected winds caused a negative North Atlantic Oscillation, causing the jetstream to double back on itself just off the East Coast. This unusual movement also stalled an Arctic front, resulting in what’s known as the Fujiwhara Effect, or the moving of two cyclonic vortices around each other. The Hydrometeorological Prediction Center’s Jim Cisco coined the term “Frankenstorm” as Sandy merged with the arctic front a few days before Halloween.

Sandy’s movement was the first signal that increasing water temperatures and the effect they have on currents, winds and storm intensity were subsequently impacting storms. The difficulty comes with trying to establish long-term patterns in hurricane frequency, as before satellite surveillance became commonplace, many storms likely went unrecorded and data pre-satellite cannot be compared reliably with post-satellite data. While storms do not appear to be increasing in frequency, climate scientist Gabriel Vecchi in a 2021 article from Science News claims there is no evidence that climate change “has acted and will act to intensify hurricane activity.” Instead, Vecchi attributes the recent increase in destruction to the ways that climate change disrupts typical weather and climate patterns, rather than directly causing storms to be more powerful or frequent, which leads to difficulty in predicting storms like Sandy. Additionally, storms are more likely to undergo rapid intensification (a sharp increase in intensity in a short amount of time) than they were 30 years ago, which Lee did. Vecchi argues that the real danger is that “sea level will rise over the coming century … [therefore, increasing] storm surge is one big hazard from hurricanes.” The best example of the phenomena is Hurricane Florence in 2018, which caused extensive flooding as far inland as Chapel Hill and Durham. NOAA models for hurricanes in the future predict that, at the current rate of change in surface sea temperatures (SST) and melting of polar ice caps, by 2100, there will be less hurricanes forming, but they will be much stronger. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are increasing in frequency, which means that storms like Lee may become more commonplace in the future.

North Carolina, although a frequent victim of storms, usually isn’t hit head-on by them and only has severe damages every year or two. Typically, North Carolinians are subjected to heavy rain, flooding and high winds. As storms grow more unpredictable, it may be time for North Carolina to re-evaluate its storm preparedness.

According to North Carolina’s Disaster Mitigation Plan, North Carolina’s government has had some success with preventing damage to properties during Hurricanes Matthew and Florence by improving infrastructure through the Yadkin Valley Sewer Authority and using satellite imagery from Post-Tropical Storm Fred. This is admittedly small compared to how vast damages can be, and the mitigation plan does not necessarily detail what efforts have been taken by the state on a smaller, community scale apart from offering post-storm grants. North Carolina’s coast is still susceptible to storms, and future storms could cause damage, particularly for small, rural communities. The ability to rebuild and recover is one aspect to be considered. Post-Matthew in 2018, even years after the storm, communities were still trying to rebuild. In 2022, Lisa Sorg, a journalist with NC Newsline, attributed this slow recovery to the fact that ReBuild NC (North Carolina’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency) contracted Rescue Construction Solutions for its rebuilding programs. Despite complaints, court cases and missed deadlines, North Carolina continued to award contracts to Rescue. As of 2023, many of the modular homes ReBuild NC promised to those who lost their homes in Matthew are not available.

Another example is Hurricane Fran of 1996, which famously came so far inland that the eye of the storm passed over Raleigh. Meredith was not left unscathed, suffering power outages and general storm damage. Dean Ann Gleason, the chair of Meredith’s Incident Response team, has this to share on Meredith’s hurricane preparedness: “As an institution that is more than 130 years old, Meredith College has weathered many storms throughout its history. Preparation is our best protection in an emergency situation, which is why the College has an extensive Incident Response Plan for a variety of situations, including weather events like hurricanes.” Dean Gleason assured the Herald that Meredith is regularly reviewing their incident response plan and ensuring it is up to date. Additionally, in the event of a severe weather event, dining services will make plans to serve meals even if the power goes out and Meredith's grounds team is prepared to take care of instances such as downed trees and limbs. Gleason also stated that Residence Life staff are supplied with things like cell phones and flashlights in order to help support residents during storms.

While Raleigh does not typically face severe weather as frequently as states like Florida or islands like Puerto Rico, the unforeseen weather events like Fran, Lee and Hilary may start to become more frequent. As individuals, students should be prepared and know how to react the next time a storm reaches North Carolina’s coast. Dean Gleason encourages students and other community members to “stay weather aware, and to review emergency preparation plans.” Some examples include, having flashlights with batteries, fully charged phones and having emergency kits. Students are able to view Meredith College’s storm preparedness guidelines.

By Lola Mestas, Contributing Writer

Graphic by Shae-Lynn Henderson, EIC


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