The Surfer Dude and Stormmaster G–Part II

Following is Part II of The Surfer Dude and Stormmaster G, an excerpt from INSIDE THE WEATHER CHANNEL, a work in progress. Part III will appear in a couple of weeks.

Two of the Best Reasons to Watch The Weather Channel–Part II


On the air, Steve Lyons sometimes treads a fine line when he doesn’t agree with a NHC forecast. He’ll never say explicitly that he thinks the Hurricane Center is wrong. So as a viewer, you have to learn to read between the lines. And that means paying attention not so much to what he says as to what he doesn’t say, or show.

In June 2005, prior to Dennis slamming into the Florida Panhandle in July, Tropical Storm Arlene was swirling toward the eastern Gulf Coast. The NHC ordered hurricane warnings hoisted from Pascagoula, Mississippi, to Destin, Florida, as the storm neared the shoreline. Steve didn’t think the storm had a prayer of delivering hurricane-force winds. But he didn’t say that on his broadcasts. Instead, he just ignored the warnings, not referring to or showing them. He pointed out there would be possible tree damage and power outages, but that was it.

He was right. Sustained wind speeds along the coast barely reached tropical storm force. The peak gust recorded was 60 mph, well below hurricane force, at the Navarre Fire Station.

That’s the key to watching Steve: be aware of what he doesn’t say or emphasize. If he thinks strong winds are not going to be an issue or that hurricane warnings are overblown, he won’t dwell on them. Many times he’ll zero in on heavy rain and flooding or coastal water rise as being the most dangerous aspects of a storm.

Steve, who arrived at The Weather Channel in 1998 after a job at the NHC, understands the pressure and scrutiny the forecasters there operate under, so isn’t looking to poke fingers in their eyes. If fact, had Steve remained at the Hurricane Center, he would have been a strong candidate to become the unit’s director. But in whatever capacity he serves, he has a well-defined philosophy about what’s right and what’s not, what works and what doesn’t and what’s important and what isn’t.

For one thing, he isn’t particularly enamored of the forecasts made by several organizations, including the NHC, for the number of Atlantic Basin tropical cyclones expected each year. The tally, he grouses, has an extremely low correlation to the number of hurricanes or tropical storms that smack the U.S. In 2001, for example, there were 15 Atlantic tropical cyclones, but not one hit our shorelines. In contrast, just six named storms and hurricanes popped up in 1992, but one of them was the infamous Category 5 Andrew that leveled Homestead, Florida. “So what’s the point of the forecasts?” Steve asks. “People who live along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts should be prepared every year for a hurricane.” It only takes one to wipe out everything you own, including your life.


One thing Steve likes to do is talk at random with people who live in cities vulnerable to hurricanes. He did this in New Orleans prior to Katrina in 2005 and discovered how woefully unprepared The Big Easy was. He wandered into a McDonald’s and ordered a soft drink; he asked the young woman serving him if she would evacuate if a hurricane were threatening the city. Without missing a beat the gal responded, “What’s a hurricane?”

“I still wonder what became of that girl,” Steve says.

As in past years, his informal survey suggested that about 40 percent of the people he chatted with wouldn’t evacuate even if they knew a hurricane was coming.

But the unpreparedness didn’t end with the general populace. Steve asked an emergency manager what the evacuation plan was for the city. “We got 10,000 body bags,” the manager said.
Steve thought he’d been misunderstood and repeated the question.

“We got 10,000 body bags,” the man said again.

I suppose that’s one way of evacuating a city, but not the preferred method.

Steve’s biggest fear, his doomsday scenario, so to speak, is of a hurricane undergoing unexpected rapid intensification just before making a predawn landfall in a major coastal city. Millions of people could be put at risk if they, for instance, went to bed anticipating a low-end Category 2 hurricane and awoke to discover a Category 5 beast bearing down on them.

It’s not an idle concern. In the same year that Arlene, Dennis and Katrina plagued the Gulf Coast, a system in the northwest Caribbean Sea, Wilma, evolved from a 70-mph tropical storm to a 175-mph Category 5 killing machine in just 24 hours. Or putting it into the perspective of Steve’s nightmare scenario, in a mere 12 hours it jumped from a “run-of-the-mill” Category 1 hurricane to a catastrophic Category 5. It exploded from a Cat 1 to a Cat 4 in a meteorological blink of the eye: six hours. Such rapid strengthening was unprecedented. But we know now it can happen.


Steve reminds his viewers, and readers of his blogs, over and over not to get hung up on a hurricane’s category, the numerical rating provided by the Saffir-Simpson scale. The Saffir-Simpson scale was designed to rate only the wind damage potential of hurricanes. But it’s been expanded, not particularly successfully, to include storm surge potential.

There are many factors, not just hurricane intensity, that determine surge levels: the character of the coast (its shape and offshore slope), the forward speed of the hurricane, its size, its track, and the angle at which it strikes the shoreline.

Steve also doesn’t like to focus on surge alone. He’s more interested in what he calls water rise, which takes into account not only the tidal surge caused by the storm, but the wave height, as well.

He offers the following examples. In 2008, Hurricane Ike, a Category 3, slashed over Galveston Island bearing a 15- to 20-foot water rise. A typical Category 3 surge is listed at 9 to 12 feet. But there are more striking (and deadly) examples. Katrina, also a Cat 3, slung a 24- to 28-foot wall of water, over twice as high as the surge listed for a Cat 3, into the Mississippi coast.

Sometimes, the water rise is considerably less than would be expected for a particular category. In 2004, small but intense Charley, a Category 4 buzz saw, ripped into southwest Florida near Fort Myers. The standard surge for a Cat 4 is listed as 13 to 18 feet, but a water rise of just 6 to 8 feet was realized from Charley. And 1992’s Andrew, a Category 5 brute, smacked Florida’s southeast coast with a water rise of 14 to 17 feet; the Saffir-Simpson scale, however, lists the expected surge with a Cat 5 as being in excess of 18 feet.

Thus, the surge heights listed on the Saffir-Simpson scale offer only a rough, and sometimes extremely misleading, guide. Better to pay attention to Steve and his water rise forecasts.

More to the point, you shouldn’t get hung up on a hurricane’s category. The Saffir-Simpson ranking gives the media a simple, easy method to describe the strength of a hurricane, but what you need to pay attention to are the overall impacts of the storm.

Steve points out that much more important than the Saffir-Simpson rating of a hurricane are the “five toes,” or expected impacts, of its footprint: wind speed, rainfall, offshore waves, water rise, and its so-called baby toe, tornadoes. In the real world, the category of a hurricane relates very poorly to some of these toes. Inundating rainfall and its resultant flooding, for example, can sometimes be more damaging and deadly than anything spawned by high winds or water rise, especially in weaker hurricanes.

Steve sometimes gets miffed when the media, including occasionally The Weather Channel, makes a big deal out of a hurricane strengthening from one category to the next. Often, that means the wind speed increased only 5 mph. “So what?” our AARP surfer dude asks rhetorically in those situations, “What’s the difference between a strong Cat 3 or low-end Cat 4?”

So it comes back to impacts, impacts, impacts.

And, oh yeah, don’t forget to pay attention to what Steve doesn’t say at times. Bottom line: he knows what he’s talking about… and not talking about.

Photo: Dr. Steve Lyons
Tropical weather expert Steve Lyons at work in The Weather Channel’s HD studio.

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