Hurricaniac Digest Chapter 2

Charley, Son of Donna

Like most folks, I am most particularly interested in what has happened over the course of my lifetime, which began in late 1951. This epoch is also considered to be the Modern Era of hurricanes (although not actually having anything to do with me), when NHC commenced in 1950 the personification of nature's most cataclysmic events by giving them cute names like Katrina. In my lifetime, or the Modern Era if you prefer, the 2nd most-intense hurricane to hit my adopted home state of Florida has been Donna. The 3rd was Charley, 13Aug2004, at 3:30 Friday afternoon, in very nearly the precise location in SW Florida where Donna started her turn to the NE nigh unto 44 years earlier. And at that moment just as inexorably was Charley on a dedicated course for Orlando as his larger, more powerful progenitor.

Ordinarily, I do not upon these pages engage in media criticism. While I remain a frequent and vocal critic of NHC, I prefer to limit my comments to the beauty of the cyclone as opposed to the ugliness of its exploitation. But, in the extreme case of Charley, the utter cynicism of those in positions of responsibility has thus far avoided the ignominy it so richly deserves. So, it is in the hope that this message will find an audience that I charge The Weather Channel with deliberately, willfully and cynically misleading the public with their self-serving coverage of Hurricane Charley. We're most all of us pretty cynical, to varying degrees of the affliction, no question. Certainly we all know The Weather Channel not to be the paragon of virtuous broadcast journalism. In their fervor to program the morbid and the sensational, they stop at nothing. Their propensity toward self-aggrandizment is legendary, e.g., they consistently misrepresent the qualifications of their on-air personnel. Ridiculed on talk shows and in the movies, and rightly so, TWC has been a national joke. But it is my contention they are not just a joke anymore; they have become dangerous. Maybe I'm living in the past, when the basic decency of John R. Hope equaled voracity. Unimpeachable, trusted, heeded above all, he was the moral standard bearer at TWC and the greatest hurricane forecaster of his time. If it's true I'm living in the past, then the past was when Brad Edwards put his index finger right on Escambia Bay and said, "Here. This is where Hurricane Opal will make landfall tonight," while the great storm was still 16hrs out. After Cuba, it became obvious to everybody that really cares that explosive development of H. Charley would soon follow. I knew it could be that intense and when the mcp hit bottom at 941mb it surprised me not at all! That high-pitched whirring sound must be John Hope spinning in his grave.

But enough media critic for this edition of the Digest. With permission, I would like to now discuss two aspects of tropical cyclones in which I firmly believe and find interesting to explore: The proto-cyclone and character; hopefully the reader will, too.

Dr Steve Lyons gets an enthusiastic FFHP nod for his highly perceptive, early-on recognition of the internal structure of Charley. As it tracked across the Caribbean, he regularly commented on how small was the internal core of this particular cyclone relative to what can be considered average (our standard for FFHP is 60nm). He described the expanse of hurricane-force winds in Charley at landfall as on the order of only 12miles! My background as an astronomy major, a lifetime of fascination with and study of tornadoes, and purely personal observations have led me to conclude this unique type of cyclone can best be described as a hybrid hurricane-tornado, an example of what I have called the proto-cyclone. A somewhat specious distinction as both are cyclones, of course, but useful to consider especially when forecasting track and its inevitable effects. The most notable predecessor in this phenomenon was the very destructive H. King, 17Oct1950 (see Florida Wall of Fame). Barnes cites this early Modern-Era hurricane as being 7-10mi in diameter:

"So sharp was the line of demarcation marking the area of extensive damage from the minor damage that you passed from one to the other within a quarter mile. It was almost like large tornado. In the heavy damage zone, there was extensive structural damage, much loss of glass and hardly a roof escaped being badly damaged or stripped entirely."
Miami WSR57 radar measured the eye at landfall at 5-6mi. King, it should be noted, had also just crossed Cuba to very little detriment. Its damage path paralleled the East Coast from its landfall at Florida City all the way up to the Orlando/East area, destroying or damaging 13,500+ residences. The official swath for Charley from NWS-Ruskin is unequivocal; it is the signature of a very large, long-track tornado, and over some very expensive real estate. Not just TWC but all media forecasters (incl'g local Orlando) should have heard and heeded the words of Dr Lyons and adjusted their advisories accordingly, to convey a small but intense peninsula-crossing hurricane and also that Charley would maintain such status and threaten the entire length of its narrow but unperturbed track across Florida. Unfortunately, they did not. Not to worry, it is not my intention to lapse into media criticism again but rather relate to you the remarkable characteristics of this species of unique and powerful storm epitomized by King and emulated by Charley, the only true major to hit the United States during the last two much-fabled seasons.

Character is very much a part of defining an individual tropical cyclone, I believe. It is the ability to overcome obstacles to where one should be headed in life, born from innate inner strength. It is heart and guts, perseverance if you will, and quite different from being known as "a character." Hurricane history provides many good examples but let me offer several of my favorite:
When on 3Nov1998, the horrific H. Mitch, killer of so many thousands in C. America, emerged into the Bay of Campeche, still viable after 81hrs over Honduras, Guatemala and Oaxaca State of Mexico! While over Guatemala as a tropical depression, it actually passed over the Telemulco Volcano at 13,800ft tall! It then made landfall... again... on the Yucatan Peninsula which it crossed in 18hrs before reemerging into the Gulf of Mexico. On 5Nov1998, when it made landfall... for the 3rd time... just N of Naples, Mitch was intensifying. It continued to intensify, bottoming out at 987mb... hurricane strength... just E. of Ft Myers. Acclimated just fine to the sawgrass, the relentless cyclone gave nothing up while hastily crossing the S Peninsula to emerge from land for the last time north of WPB at 988mb! All in all, Mitch spent a total of 102hrs... since its inception as a t.d. on 22Oct1998... over land before dissipating quickly over the chilly N Atlantic. Wow! This was the veritable definition of character.

The middleweight champion of hurricanes, Andrew, was all but counted out at 1014mb in a shear zone NE of Puerto Rico on 20Aug1992 but survived long enough to make it to the so-called "north crucible" NE of the Bahamas where so many great and terrible cyclones are born. It showed all of us, to our trepidation and awe, Andrew's character; the rest is history.

When, on 25Aug2005, Katrina intensified while over land, and not just any land but the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Area, that was character enough. NHC forecasted it would take Katrina 30hrs to cross Florida on its way to New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and destiny; when it then took the legendary storm only 6, that was character personified.
And when, on the morning of 11Aug 2004, Charley did the Time-Warp around Jamaica, thus avoiding entirely the foreboding Blue Mountains looming dead ahead, thereby preserving the inner core of the neophyte proto-cyclone, that too was character. I could cite many others but you get the idea. It is always, and I stress always, a prerequisite to hurricane greatness and shows itself to the careful observer early-on in the game. These storms are a cut above the ordinary and history is replete with the ordinary; they don't follow the rules, they make them; they defy the conventional wisdom and make foolish the prognosticators. Lacking character, the ordinary cyclone becomes just another punk hurricane relegated to the anonymity of the track files and its name gets recycled, not retired. After declining Jamaica, Charley, flush with character, then brushed aside the Island of Cuba like so much ash from a fine Cohiba and continued on its inexorable way into the Gulf of Mexico, destined for greatness. It should have been obvious.