Inland areas not risk-free, experts say
Published: Tuesday, June 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2004 at 1:28 a.m.
After a parched spring that rained little more than sun rays on North Central Florida, the region might welcome today's start of hurricane season and the promise of drought relief it brings.
But when it comes to hurricanes and tropical storms, weather experts say, even inland areas should be careful what they wish for - especially in a year that is predicted to be more active than usual.
"No matter what the probability, in any given year there is still the chance that we could be impacted by a major hurricane," said David Zierden, Florida's assistant state climatologist. "So everyone should be prepared."
Earlier this spring meteorologist oddsmakers issued their predictions for storm activity for the 2004 hurricane season, which opens today and closes Nov. 30.
William Gray of Colorado State University's Department Atmospheric Sciences gives his storm forecasts in exact numbers - subject to change as the season progresses. For 2004, he predicts 14 named storms, about four more than the 50-year annual average of 9.6. Gray foresees eight hurricanes this year, three of them intense (Category 3 and above). An average year produces 5.9 hurricanes, with 2.3 of them intense.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prefers to give its predictions in ranges. But this year it's in the same ballpark as Gray.
NOAA predicts 12 to 15 named storms this season and six to eight hurricanes, with two to four of them intense.
"There is a 50 percent chance this season will be above normal, a 40 percent chance it will be normal, and only a 10 percent chance it will be below normal, or an inactive season," said Zierden, a researcher in Florida State University's Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies.
The numbers are just projections, said David Donnelly, Alachua County's assistant emergency manager. He said they don't always foretell what a season really will be like.
"Looking at history, the deadliest hurricane on record - Galveston in 1900 - the most intense hurricane, which occurred in 1935, and Hurricane Andrew, the most costly, all occurred during slow seasons," Donnelly said.
What the experts can't predict well in advance is the projected path of a tropical storm or hurricane, or where it might make landfall.
People in Alachua County and other inland areas of North Central Florida shouldn't kid themselves that being well away from the coastlines shelters them from the effects of major storms, Donnelly and Zierden said. While it's somewhat less vulnerable here than Cedar Key or Crescent Beach, the potential for harm still is high.
"In 1964, Hurricane Dora caused $7 million damage in Alachua County - and that was in '64 dollars," Donnelly said.
"In terms of effects, the National Hurricane Center looks at the whole package - wind, rain and storm surge," Donnelly said.
"Being inland, we have no storm surge. But we still have to worry about high winds and especially flooding," he said.
He said in North Central Florida, a weak tropical storm could be more dangerous than a low-grade hurricane. Slow-moving tropical storms, he said, tend to produce more rainfall in a given area than a hurricane, whose high winds often push it through quickly.
Hurricane King came ashore in downtown Miami in 1950, and one day later it came across Alachua County as a weakened tropical storm that finally petered out in southwestern Georgia. Donnelly said King's heavy rains caused significant flooding in Gainesville.
"Nobody should take a tropical storm lightly," he said.
Hurricane-force winds are less likely by the time a storm reaches North Central Florida, Donnelly and Zierden said.
"That's not to say wind damage is impossible inland," Zierden said.
Donnelly said a Category 3 hurricane (winds 111 to 130 mph) that devastated Cedar Key in 1896 pushed inland and "pretty much wiped out High Springs" - 60 miles inland. "It blew down two churches, a school and most of the businesses," he said.
Early planning is key
Whatever the annually adjusted numbers, an idea that remains constant season after season is preparedness.
The key to getting ready, Donnelly said, is to start planning long before a storm forms.
"Start creating a family disaster plan now," he said. "Look at such questions as, if we have to evacuate, where do we go? If we have a pet, what arrangements do we need to make?"
Alachua County's Office of Emergency Management plans on Wednesday to hold a hurricane-season briefing on what to expect this year. Donnelly said representatives from the University of Florida, Santa Fe Community College and Alachua County schools have been invited.
During the first week of May, the county participated in a statewide storm-preparedness exercise. Donnelly said the model on which scenarios for the exercise were based was the so-called Labor Day hurricane of 1935 that struck the Florida Keys on Sept. 2.
That officially unnamed storm, which killed 423 people, was the strongest hurricane on record to hit the United States.
To help educate the general public on staying safe during hurricane season, Donnelly's office is sponsoring the Emergency Preparedness Expo 2004 on June 19.
The free event, to be held at The Oaks Mall from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., will include information on preparing for storms and a "Hurricane House Game."
His office's Web site - www.alachua-em.org - has a link to preparing for tropical storms and hurricanes. Donnelly said people in other counties, especially those that border the coast, should check with their local emergency management office for information specific to their area.
"Make sure you get correct information," he said. "Information that's being put out for Alachua County may not be the same as in Levy County."
He said that while a hurricane warning or watch might be issued for Levy and other coastal counties, such wording would never be issued in Alachua County.
"We would issue a 'high inland wind watch,' or flood watches and warnings," Donnelly said. "Educate yourself on what the different (wording) means."
He and Zierden offered other tips for being ready in hurricane season:
"Now they have the technology that you can even program these radios for the county you're in or a neighboring county," Donnelly said. "It's the best way to get any weather information."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or email@example.com.
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