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Ask Anything: 10 questions with hurricane expert Jamie Rhome

Hurricane expert Jamie Rhome answers your questions about storm damage, naming storms and much more.

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Hurricane expert Jamie Rhome
If a Cat 5 Hurricane hit our coast and made a bee-line for Raleigh, what kind of damage would we expect to see in Raleigh? – James Radford, Garner

James, since warm waters are the fuel for hurricane and tropical storms, these storms typically weaken as they move inland. The extent of damage from a hurricane moving into the Piedmont of North Carolina would be a function of many things, such as the forward speed of the hurricane, the rate of decay/weakening, and pre-existing conditions.

Thus, it is hard to say for sure exactly how much damage one could expect. People often forget that hurricanes are not just a coastal hazard and produce significant inland damage. We only need to look at two historical hurricanes affecting North Carolina to prove this point.

Hugo (1989) produced significant damage in Charlotte after making landfall in the Charleston, S.C., area as a category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale. Similarly, Fran (1996) downed many trees and produced widespread power outages in the Raleigh/Durham area. Life-threatening flash flooding is also a major hazard and can be worsened if the soil is moist from earlier rain.

Who decides what the hurricanes will be named? I've been waiting my whole life for Hurricane Hayley, but it doesn't look like that will happen in the near future. It has a nice ring to it, don't you think? – Hayley K., Raleigh

Hayley, since 1978, the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization, a group representing some 120 different countries, has used pre-determined lists of names for tropical storms and hurricanes for each ocean basin of the world. The Atlantic basin, which falls under Regional Association IV, has a six year supply of names with 21 names for each year.

Why 21 names? Well, the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are not used because names beginning with those letters are in short supply. When a storm like Mitch, Andrew, or Katrina causes extensive damage and/or casualties, the country most affected by the storm may recommend to the World Meteorological Organization's Regional Association that the name be "retired."

Retiring a name is an act of respect for its victims and reduces confusion in the insurance, legal, or scientific literature. A retired name is replaced with a like-gender name beginning with the same letter. For example, Honduras recommended the name Mitch (1998) be retired and proposed the replacement name, Matthew, for consideration (and vote) by the 25-member countries of the Regional Association-IV.

When you are determining the size and the velocity of a Hurricane, what are the factors and statistics you look for? – Chrissy Holland, Micro

Chrissy, forecasters have many tools at their disposal when evaluating the size and intensity of hurricanes including: satellite data, ships and buoys, aircraft reconnaissance, weather balloons or radiosondes, and radar. However, since hurricanes spend much of their life over water where these data are not readily available, forecasters must also rely heavily on experience. When it comes to forecasting intensity and size, we use various numerical forecast models. Each model has its own strengths and weaknesses, so, forecaster experience is vital.

Is it true that most damage and fatalities associated with hurricanes are caused by the storm surge? It would be great if there was storm surge specialist at the hurricane center. – Rob Sessoms, Sanford

Rob, yes, historically the greatest loss of life and property damage is a result of storm surge. An estimated 1,500 persons lost their lives during Katrina (2005) and most were attributed to storm surge. While storm surge is often the biggest threat, so much of the public’s attention is focused on wind speed or strength of the hurricane.

The most common question people ask is ‘Which category on the Saffir-Simpson scale will this hurricane be when it makes landfall?’ The Saffir-Simpson scale is a wind only scale and merely tells you the maximum wind speed or intensity in the hurricane. It tells you nothing about the impacts from storm surge, inland flooding, or tornadoes. I would encourage the public to educate themselves on all hazards that accompany hurricanes including rain/flooding, storm surge, wind, and tornadoes.

The National Hurricane Center has its own Storm Surge Unit which specializes in storm surge forecasting and prediction. Thus, we have four storm surge specialists, including myself.

In the years since Hurricane Fran, it seems like it was rare that a hurricane came so far inland. Most of us who grew up here were quite surprised. What are the chances that we could have a repeat of such a storm here? – Sarah, Apex

Sarah, even though a similar storm has not impacted the Raleigh area since Fran, historically speaking, a tropical storm or hurricane moves very near the Triangle area on average every 6-7 years. Thus, tropical storms or hurricane impact the area frequently enough that one must prepare every season. Always remember, hurricanes are not just a coastal event.

As a North Carolina resident, should I be more concerned with a hurricane that moves directly over us, or a hurricane that passes by along the coast? – Jeff Shepherd, Cary

Jeff, since all hurricanes are unique, it really depends on the situation. That said, the strongest winds and highest storm surge typically lies near and to the east of where the center/eye crosses land.

However, keep in mind that a hurricane is not a point and life-threatening weather can extend well beyond the center, in some cases several hundred miles. For example, while Hurricane Ike made landfall in Texas, it caused significant storm surges along much of the northern Gulf coast including southeastern Louisiana.

Outer rainbands often produce tornadoes well away from the center. People are absolutely enamored by the eye/center and often forget that hurricanes are large weather events. Don’t focus solely on the center/eye!

I have heard the term "pop-up" hurricanes for the first time recently. Could you explain just what this is and is this a new weather pattern, or just the first time our part of the world has had to be concerned with it? Thank you! – Jane Mull, Goldsboro

Jane, the term “popup” hurricane is used exclusively in the media and typically refers to systems that form rapidly nearly the coast thus providing less lead time or notice than those that form over the open Atlantic.

Humberto (2007) is one such example of a system that went from a disorganized system of clouds off the Texas coast to a hurricane in about 18 hours. Such rapid development presents a challenge since properly alerting and evacuating a coastal community can take days.

This underscores why coastal residents need to develop a hurricane plan and acquire emergency supplies on June 1 rather than waiting for an actual hurricane to form. Simply put, if you wait for a storm to affect you before preparing, you may not have enough time.

What is the single most important thing that a homeowner can do to retrofit their home to make it more resilient to wind and/or water damage from a hurricane? – Tyler Strayhorn, Raleigh

Tyler, this all depends on your home and budget. Varying building codes and standards make this a difficult question to answer. I can provide some general suggestions. First, remember that one of the biggest vulnerabilities of a home is the garage door. You need to ensure that it is properly reinforced. Secondly, your windows need to be protected from flying debris. Tape on the windows does not work! I would recommend consulting a specialist who can make recommendations specific to your home.

I understand the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, but there seems to be a lack of quantification of the over all size of a hurricane. Some very strong hurricanes are tight and affect a small geographical area, but some lower grade hurricanes are huge and result in a broader area of damage, such as the last storm that made landfall near Galveston. I've held the belief that it would be helpful if there were a square matrix-like scale, which took into account the overall area of the storm I square km of hurricane force winds - such as a Cat 3-A, 3-B, 3-C or 3-D, with the maximum wind speeds by the traditional Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale and the hurricane field area being represented by the letter. What are your thoughts? Fellow HA student and weather enthusiast – Angie, Jacksonville

Angie, several scientists have proposed similar concepts and a healthy debate exists within the hurricane community regarding the applicability of such scales. In the end, a new product or scale must be easily understood by the public. Along these lines, the number one argument against a scale similar to the one you proposed is how difficult it is to explain.

I really want to be a meteorologist when I get older!!! How many years of college and what degree do you have to get? – Jessica Masengill, Pine Level

Jessica, a degree in meteorology, preferably an advanced degree, is required to obtain a job forecasting weather. A PhD is typically required to teach at the university level or do research. Most of the core classes involve math, physics, and science.

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