Storms, No Chasers

April 11, 2017

lightning - 1(1).jpgThe National Weather Center is housed in a 250,000-square-foot, five-story building on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman. There’s a big observation deck facing south, because around here that’s where severe storms usually come from, and these people love to watch.

NWC is a partnership among OU, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and state agencies. OU’s School of Meteorology is the largest such program in the country, with about 250 undergrads and some 90 postgraduate students. But these folks aren’t exactly studying for a slot on the evening news. Their facility also houses some of America’s most capable pros. Whenever there’s a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch anywhere in the contiguous 48 states, the call originates in Norman, Oklahoma.

145e03515dc712626f7611577d4eea73.jpgThe building is pretty new — it opened in 2006 — but America’s severe-storm research infrastructure has been migrating to Norman since the early Sixties. Even before that, scientists deployed the first Doppler weather radar system here. It’s a great location because the topography is fairly flat — you know, the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain — and it sits smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. The National Severe Storm Laboratory (NSSL) studies most kinds of awful weather, but the National Hurricane Center is closer to the action, in Miami. (Although fracking has of late cursed Oklahoma with more than its share of earthquakes, the seismic experts are in Denver.)

Tornado.jpgThe coolest part of NWC is the Storm Prediction Center, where the forecasters work inside a ring of honking black Dell monitors that looks like a Bond villain’s lair. They are looking for any severe conditions across the country, including winter and fire weather. When they’re confident Mother Nature’s about to get mad, they issue watches covering the affected areas. Local National Weather Service offices take it from there and spit out on-the-ground info, such as a tornado touchdown, in the form of warnings. Each NWS office serves a strictly delineated jurisdiction, which is why severe weather watch areas are always expressed by a list of specific counties.

NWC is a resource for every sort of person. They’re diverse in age, gender, nationality, you name it, but nearly all of them have one thing in common. Their favorite movie is TWISTER. Not just because weather people are the heroes, but because their own work basically inspired the whole darn thing.

The notion of collecting data from inside a tornado, which drives TWISTER’s plot, is genuine. NSSL tried its best to do so in the Seventies and Eighties. They created a nifty device and wryly named it the Totable Tornado Observatory, which of course works out to TOTO, after the canine character in another big movie that featured a twister. The screenwriters Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, who came to NSSL for research, took that as a jumping-off point and dubbed their fictional device “Dorothy.” Several actors including leads Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, as well as producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, also spent time in Norman.

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From left: “Dorothy,” the competitors’ “D.O.T. 3,” both movie props, and NOAA’s TOTO, which is for real.

The TWISTER folks wanted to acknowledge OU by putting the university’s seal on the side of “Dorothy.” But to their surprise, permission was declined. Why in the world would OU do that? Because storm chasing is dangerous (as TWISTER viewers well know) and the school cannot support or even condone such daredeviltry, not even in a fictional movie. So the TWISTER production was forced to design its own phony academic seal, and the team retaliated by dressing the very craziest storm chaser, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an OU ball cap for the entire picture, and stenciling “O.K. L.A.” on the side of one of the props. No hard feelings: the Weather Center’s canteen is called the Flying Cow Cafe, after one of TWISTER’s best-known shots.

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Helen Hunt says thanks.

Some people at the Center nevertheless throw caution to, well, you know, and strike out themselves, but they’re doing so at their own risk. There are some beautiful color photos of severe storms on the walls, and one student told us, “If you can’t look at these photos and determine the vertical wind shear, you have no business chasing storms.” NSSL took the TWISTER actors out on a real tornado chase, but it had nothing to do with OU, wink wink. We visited the Weather Center on a gorgeous day: blue sky, low 70s, hardly any wind. They call that “boring.”

Severe weather predictions are one more of those things we take for granted, but they’re the result of hard work, eureka moments and sheer persistence. In 2009, a piece of equipment called VORTEX 2 successfully intercepted a tornado, more than thirty years after the first halting efforts that inspired TWISTER. I read once that local tv weather people tend to forecast gloomily because of human nature: if they predict rain and it turns out nice, everybody feels happy, but viewers resent being caught in bad weather by surprise. The scientists at the Storm Prediction Center don’t have the luxury of approximation, even though our climate is almost unbelievably complex. They’re not merely suggesting that you take along your raincoat. By giving everyone fair warning, they’re actually saving people’s lives.

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Wasn’t That A Mighty Storm?

October 30, 2012

New Yorkers can sense when it’s really gonna be bad. As they brush away the first saltlike dots of snow powered by a serious Nor’easter, they reflexively raid the food stores. First go the “D” batteries. Do yourself a preemptive favor and snatch up a pile of Ds the next time you see one: Costco, a roadside table, anywhere. Your trusty old flashlight – you know, the good one – uses these big bulky power cells, just like airbody else’s does. Later go milk, bread, eggs, meat, Pampers – but like certain hardy insects, those dicey cans in the Campbell’s-soup section stare back and survive.

They laugh at us insular cityfolk, but we can read a weather map as well as you can. Hurricane Sandy happened to collide with two other weather patterns, and an oppositional weather pattern can’t remain part of such a threesome without relieving itself upon your head. The “trickle-down theory,” I guess. (Sorry about that analogy; I need a good editor.) Once again came the run on the stores, which began Saturday but hit fourth gear on Sunday. That morning, I looked at the tv weather map at my gym (MOS; I read magazines while huffin & puffin, so no earbuds for me), and this was the biggest twister I’d ever seen, a go-rilla of a storm that just beat its chest and threatened to climb the dadburn Empire State Building. How big? Look at the satellite photo above, taken late Sunday. Holy moley. I considered doing an emergency load of laundry in case things really did go blooey.

I overheard a guy at the gym telling somebody, “I took a meteorology course in college. I know better than these tv face jocks. I’m tellin ya, it’s just gonna be some heavy rain and wind. Nothin to get worried about.” I didn’t observe (aloud) that these days most major-market weatherfolk were meteorology majors at the very least, but I decided in that instant: I’m definitely doing some frickin laundry.

I laid out bottled water and flashlights in every room. Linda filled up the bathtub. If power goes out, you can’t pump water up to the 21st floor, and that includes water for the potty; I learned that during the great Northeast blackout of 2003, when we went without juice on a sweltering summer afternoon and night. (Linda was out of town, in a nice air-conditioned hotel room, for the whole event.) At least it wouldn’t be so miserably hot this time. Also, one of your first chores when the lights go out, I learned back then, is to empty the icemaker – unless you want to try and tote it around later as sloshy liquid water.

All of this was designed to deliberately tempt Murphy’s Law. You know, take an umbrella to work and it won’t rain. By Sunday afternoon, we were prepared to lose power – and if we didn’t, it would be the year’s greatest anticlimax. Most businesses, including that gym, closed late Sunday afternoon, subway service ended at 7pm, and the rest of NYC public transportation a little later. Airports? Forget about it. By Monday morning, the streets were eerily quiet (yellow cabs were still trolling). It hadn’t started to rain, but the wind was definitely picking up. Our building is on cantilevers, so during really strong winds you can hear a soft creaking and notice some back-and-forth give if you’re standing. I always imagine it’s what it must sound and feel like aboard a pirate ship. Well, we set to sea about 8am.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg – who has done one hell of a job over the years – called for evacuation of the city’s lower-lying areas. But some people felt burned by the same call during Irene in August of last year: they evacuated and then couldn’t get back for a while, even though we’d avoided a direct hit by this very nasty storm. To them, Hizzonner was crying wolf again, making something out of nothing. More meteorology experts. But as Bloomberg noted, if you stick around, you’re endangering not only your own lives, but also the lives of the emergency responders who may have to come dig you out.

The wind kept increasing as Monday wore on and Sandy, still at sea, actually found herself stronger than the day before. Exactly where she would take the left turn toward the mainland was the big question. That intermittent shrieking sound can really make you nervous if you let it. Linda noticed the next-door apartment’s windows were covered with big masking-tape Xs. She also overheard somebody downstairs advising a resident to crack the windows to equalize air pressure. A quick scoot online showed us that tape does nothing to impede the process of windows breaking (hurricane shutters and new screen and fabric products can help, but they have to go on well in advance), and opening or even just cracking a window will invite more damage than if it’s tightly sealed, because any wind that does enter will seek to exit, powerfully. This old wives’ tale started long ago during tornado-damage investigations; houses seemed to have exploded from within, so maybe an air-pressure differential was at fault. What actually would happen was this: escaping wind typically forced a roof upward, its sharp angle acting like a wing as the shear kept howling above it. The roof gained lift and went airborne and the walls fell outward, making it look like they’d been pushed from within. No underwriter believes that stuff about air pressure any more. Folks, save your tape (it does exactly zip), and don’t crack your windows (it’ll only make things worse). I love me these Internets.

One of our best friends has a magnificent beach house in Fire Island Pines. I started worrying about it – our friend’s okay; besides, Fire Island was evacuated. I mean the house – midday Monday and never quit. We’ve seen absolute real-estate carnage on that beach before, utter devastation. But as he once said, “I’d never buy a house on this beach that I couldn’t afford to lose.” It was all up to Sandy now.

As the light faded on Monday, we noticed some fairly robust trees in planters across 87th Street from our place bowing over bigger than Obama ever had! The weight of the planters was all that kept these boys over 87th Street instead of on it, twenty-one stories below. We were looking across at the former Gimbels department store, now transformed into high-end residences and film-shoot sites. (There’s a “Manhattan-background” shoot directly across from us at least twice a year. One day Linda saw Michael Douglas changing clothes!) But today, two burly guys were tying down all the plants they could, and taking photos of everything else. For the insurance claims, hmmmm? The wind was blowing so hard that I was worried the guys might topple over the side.

A leaf convention held Tuesday morning on Fifth Avenue at Central Park.

Tuesday morning, good old Murphy’s Law had favored us and we still had power. But I couldn’t say the same for so many of our friends. The lights went out in Greenwich Village about 8:30pm Monday, and the flooding throughout lower Manhattan was beyond belief. Fortunately, we live in Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side, emphasis on the word “hill.” But “most of Manhattan below Midtown,” according to the Times, went dark, about 250,000 customers. (A “customer” can be a whole family, even an entire building.) Add Westchester County and the powerless total rose to 634,000. And that’s just in New York. Two million customers in Jersey, which is where the storm decided to make land. Six hundred thousand in Connecticut. Emergency shifts of gas and electric workers had been bussed in, but it wasn’t clear whether they could even begin until the winds had died down, maybe by Wednesday. They were still gusting fairly hard Tuesday morning, but we felt a bit of reassurance: some trees might still fall, but Monday afternoon and evening probably represented the worst juju this storm could throw at our area. Monday night after I was already asleep, Linda closed the blinds at every window. The howling had gotten much worse, but I was happily snoozing through it all. She explained Tuesday that if the windows blew, the blinds might protect against flying glass a little. I said, I thought we retired this window-taping stuff yesterday! I guess old habits die hard.

More than any other city in America, New York depends on public transportation. Every workday, it breathes in millions of people on Metropolitan Transit Authority trains and buses, and breathes them out again at quitting time. On Monday, Sandy basically paralyzed the place. The MTA chairman said it was the worst disaster in the 108-year-history of the New York subway system. At least seven subway tunnels under the East River were flooded. Six bus garages were disabled by high water. Waves breached the sea wall in the low-lying financial district, towing cars downstream. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was flooded from end to end. Bridges onto the island remained closed Tuesday morning. Once you lose transportation here, everything stops. School’s out, bub – and what’s worse, the nanny can’t get to your house, so you have to entertain bored kids yourself! There was no mail delivery Monday or Tuesday, and no newspaper drop Tuesday morning. (Linda and I agreed that it’s nice and convenient and all, but we’d much rather flip through a physical newspaper than have to read it online.) Nearly all businesses were shut. Broadway went dark, though almost nobody plays on Mondays anyhow and the subway had shut down well after Sunday matinees were already over, but theaters remained dark on Tuesday, a regular workday; the Broadway League, their trade association, said they expected to be back up for Wednesday matinees. Nearby, David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon each taped their Monday shows without a studio audience.

This poor schnook parked in the wrong place on Monday: just outside the Carnegie Mansion on Fifth Avenue.

The damage nearly defied description. The winds snapped an arm of a 90-story construction crane and flipped the arm over, and it dangled precariously over West 57th Street as police frantically evacuated the immediate area. (Carnegie Hall, next door, cancelled concert after concert while the city tried to figure out how to get the doggone thing down safely.) A nine-hour fire, abetted by whipping winds, destroyed at least fifty homes in the Breezy Point section of Queens; residents and volunteer firemen had to battle the blaze because FDNY couldn’t get its trucks past the floodwater. New York State’s oldest lighthouse, a 110-foot structure erected in 1796 on Montauk Point at the eastern edge of Long Island, shuddered in the storm, and its lighthouse keeper said, “I went up in the tower and it was vibrating, it was shaking. I got out of it real quick. I’ve been here through hurricanes, and nor’easters, but nothing this bad.” Even the guy who supervises the Statue of Liberty evacuated his house on Liberty Island, although the great lady herself remained “high and dry.” As you can see, we wandered past a potential tragedy in our own neighborhood. The only good thing about it is that the owner wasn’t inside the car when it got smacked. You can get a new car, but not a new you – and a few New York City fatalities happened just the same way: people minding their own business, even indoors, when a tree burst in to crush them. Linda asked the officers who were preventing anyone from entering Central Park how it had fared. They said they’d lost some trees but doubted that the wind gusts had actually reached the advertised 90mph in the park itself.

Just guessing here, but the car alarm may have gone off.

On Tuesday, President Obama declared New York City part of a federal disaster area due to Sandy’s damage. At midday, the New York Stock Exchange announced it was planning to open on schedule Wednesday morning at 9:30am, after the first two-day weather-related NYSE suspension since a blizzard in the 19th century. Mayor Bloomberg called another school closing day for Wednesday and said subways will remain shut for “a good four or five days.” That in itself qualifies as a catastrophe; more than five million riders use the subway every business day. Bus service on a Sunday schedule was to start at 5pm Tuesday, with wider service to begin the next day, but it’ll still be crippled: counting overflow from the subway, bus riding looked to be horrific for the following week or so, one sardine can after another. And just as grimly, the mayor also said it could be three days or more before electrical power was restored in the city. We are so fortunate that the lights stayed on in our area. An outpouring of help and hospitality went out to those who are still in the dark – after all, this is the greatest city in the world – and since this time some of us have power, there won’t be many who are forced to do without; it’ll descend from a disaster to a pain-in-the-ass-level inconvenience. But even those refugees, in all their misery, will have something that at least ten New Yorkers don’t have any more: their lives.

One of my favorite songs is Tom Rush’s version of “Galveston Flood 1900,” a single-chord tune which he performs using a butter knife as a guitar slide to create slashing, metallic figures that sound like angry, relentless, storm-tossed waves, viscerally evoking pure terror: “some died most every way.” I couldn’t quit thinking of this song while the winds were howling on Monday. The Galveston flood was many, many times deadlier than Hurricane Sandy, and there have been some other Gulf Coast storms in my own lifetime which were much more powerful. Sandy was “only” a Class 1 hurricane until it made land, then it was technically reduced to a “post-tropical cyclone,” a term which describes attributes, not intensity. By contrast, Hurricane Camille in 1969 (Class 5 at landfall) and Hurricane Katrina in 2003 (Class 3) had gusts far exceeding Sandy’s. The difference is that this one smacked right into the most densely populated corridor in the United States, and long after what we assumed to be “hurricane season” was over. (It actually extends through the end of November.) What we learned is that even our mightiest metropolises can be brought to their knees by the wrath of nature. If we human beings are at all responsible for making seawater warmer – thus feeding ever more intense storms – then we fully deserve the grotesque price we’ll have to pay. Life will go on without us, and our planet will eventually heal itself, whether we’re around to enjoy it or not. Nature is indifferent to us; we simply can’t afford to return the sentiment. If we continue to dawdle – maybe even if we don’t – Hurricane Sandy won’t be the last terrible visitor to knock at New York’s door, and then bash it in.


Rock Me Like A Hurricane

August 27, 2011

I’ve been through two big storms before: Hurricane Donna in 1960, as a lad of 10 in Norfolk, Virginia; and Hurricane Camille in 1969, both of them so bad-ass that they retired the names. Even though I now lived nowhere near landfall, I was actually in Portugal for Katrina, so was spared as it ravaged the turf where I used to reside: I guess this is one more revolution of the karma wheel, headed straight for me today. More as it gets closer, until we inevitably lose power.

Earlier glimpses so I make sure I don’t forget ’em: Mayor Bloomberg ordered all mass transit to cease at noon today, Saturday; first time in history. (I wonder if, like Standard & Poor’s, he’s overcompensating for a previous institutional gaffe, for him last winter’s blizzard.) NYC airports have essentially shut down, all are permitting only outbound flights, and those only as weather allows. My gym was open this morning, but not the Starbucks on the corner: closed today and Sun. That is deadly serious, and maybe even instructive for folks who aren’t paying attention. The NYTimes, busily building its paid firewall, opened everything regarding the paper’s so-far-exemplary coverage of the impending disaster to anyone who can log in. Classy. Linda sez she’s not at all sure we’ll lose power, but we took all the precautions anyway, even filled our tub with water so we can make the toilets flush without electricity. (We live on the 21st floor, where you need Con Ed’s help to pump the water up and defy gravity, but adding water to the tank and flushing employs Prof. Newton’s discovery just fine. I learned that little trick during the 2003 multi-state blackout.)

6 am Sunday: Power’s still on, but the storm basically just got here. Very heavy wind and rain. One rubber seal in the kitchen window is bad; water was leaking inside until Mr. Fix-It stuffed a towel in the offending corner. Damn, I’m good.

10 am. The center has passed over us, and Irene has been downgraded to a tropical storm. Take that, Irene. Con Ed’s juice still flowing.

6 pm. All that’s left is a little wind. Good night, Irene.

9 am Monday. It’s a beautiful, sunny late summer day. High 80, blue sky, visibility forever. Gorgeous. Reminds me of the weather on 9/11/01.

SOME TIME LATER: But then came…


Let It Snow, Y’all!

February 16, 2010

The mother of a close childhood friend (close enough that she helped to raise me too) passed away early last week, and I had to go quickly to Jackson, Mississippi for the Friday memorial. But the weather guys were predicting a big snowstorm for Wednesday; New York had missed the previous week’s pounding, which shut down D.C., but we wouldn’t be so lucky this time. So I flew to Jackson on Tuesday, very proud of myself for beating the blizzard and the airport shutdowns (which indeed happened: if I hadn’t left that early, I wouldn’t have made it at all). I didn’t expect to be present for Mississippi’s heaviest snowfall in many years.

The Deep South above the Florida panhandle is only semi-tropical, so it can get cold and wet in the winter, but ice storms are more common than notable accumulations of snow. In both cases driving can be dangerous, especially for people who aren’t accustomed to winter weather, and power lines snap as laden tree branches fall over. They’re actually used to being without power down there. Most people think Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, but that’s not so. The hurricane made landfall much farther east, in South Mississippi. It was the failure of New Orleans’s levees to hold back high wind-driven water which flooded the city, not Katrina herself. Meanwhile, more than 150 miles north of landfall, Jacksonians watched the still-mighty storm uproot centuries-old trees and throw them around like kindling. (At least the storm had weakened enough to spare most of their houses; back on the Coast, it simply demolished everything standing.) As if that weren’t enough misery, Mississippi is among the top ten states for tornado incidence, and some killer tornadoes later tried to finish what Katrina couldn’t. So when the TV meteorologists started warning of a snowstorm of historic proportions, with big, wet, heavy flakes that would surely test branches and power lines, people paid attention.

I stayed with another close friend who’s made great hay over the years by boasting that it never snows where he is. He lives in Mississippi, so duh, but whenever he travels to a Northern city in the winter, no snow falls while he’s there. Never. On Thursday I could see the storm on radar aiming for the entire Deep South, and I heard what it dumped in Texas, so I bet him that by Friday morning, the grass in his back yard would be covered with snow and his longtime “record” would be snapped in two. We stepped outside as the snow began about 6 p.m. Thursday and he was still skeptical. It was falling, all right, but it had to stick too – enough to make his back yard a winter wonderland. Here’s what it looked like the next morning:

Photo by Diane Vick.

It had snowed all night, but really started falling at whiteout-strength about 3 a.m. and continued through morning rush. Jackson got just shy of six inches, its largest February single-day snowfall in 50 years, and the tenth biggest “snow event” ever. All the schools closed, and many businesses too: the directive was to stay off the road unless you absolutely had to be there, but Mississippians aren’t used to taking such orders just for a bunch of snow. Still, there’s no such thing as a snowplow in Jackson, Mississippi. If there were, the idiot who bought it should be shot and gutted.

I thought how lucky the schoolkids were: in New York, it had snowed on Tuesday night, making Wednesday a snow day. But Mayor Bloomberg actually apologized to New York’s kids early Thursday for reopening schools that day. In contrast, Jackson’s snow day was Friday, just perfect. Snow-lovers – including, funniest of all, dogs which had never seen the stuff before — had as long as the snow lasted to play.

Diane took this one too. That is Dylan, discovering snow.

Some people will doubtless seize upon Friday, a day when there was snow on the ground in 49 of the 50 states (guess which one escaped? Obama’s home!!!), as evidence against climate change, specifically global warming. That’s like noticing a skinny guy in line at McDonalds and concluding that fast food doesn’t make you fat. The more often we hear, “once-a-century storm,” “once-in-fifty-years snowfall” – and aren’t we breaking meteorological records all the time now? — the very least it indicates is that weather patterns seem to be changing. We’re experiencing more anomalous events, like rain where it’s not supposed to be (CA, AZ) and drought where it is (GA). Hurricanes are rarer but stronger, with lesser storms taking up the frequency. Daily highs and lows are historic in unusual proportions. And all this is predicted by the climate change models of most serious researchers.

Of course, back in our own little corner of earth, we were among those who did have to be on the road Friday morning, because we had a mother to memorialize. As we drove toward the church about 10 a.m., the roads were still pretty awful, and it kept snowing as we waited for the service to begin. But then the sun appeared, the temperature rose toward forty, and by the time we walked out, branches were shedding snow. Nearly all the power lines that were destined to fail already had, including at the home of one of our pallbearers, but he got power back only a few hours later. There was more melting on Saturday – the trees were all wintry bare again – and on Sunday rain swept away the last of the “white stuff.” Except for snowmen, now standing guard by themselves in grassy yards. I wonder how many of the families that happily built the big guys realized that one of the reasons we make snowmen in the first place is because they’re always our last surviving memories of the snow that just fell. By Sunday evening, they were all that was left of the amazing Blizzard of 2010.

My back yard after I got home, following a similar snowstorm. Photo by me.

P.S., at the end of the month: Here are the climate change points I was trying to make up there and much more, only stated more artfully and authoritatively.


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