Hurricane Center: forecasting Florence's unpredictable path difficult prospect

Virginians are breathing a sigh of relief after Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina on Friday and both evacuation orders and tropical storm warnings were lifted for Southeastern Virginia.

Hurricanes are a particularly difficult storm to forecast. As Florence took a turn away from Virginia, one forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla. who tracked the storm said he’s glad the region was ready for the worst.

“There’s a huge difference in the number of people who need to be warned depending on a 250-mile window where it could hit land,” hurricane support meteorologist Joel Cline said. “We can’t wait until it hits land to provide evacuation notices.”

Forecasting massive storms like Florence is as much monitoring the storm from space as it is interpreting data at ground level, he said.

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center need to take into account air currents, pressure zones, how much moisture the hurricane is carrying, air speeds, humidity and air temperatures to name a few of the panoply of variables atmospheric scientists look at.

That interpretation of data often has ambiguities that can’t be answered based on how information is collected and where storms are located, according to Cline.

Weather observation buoys off the coast of the United States aren’t much help when a storm is off the coast of West Africa or even Bermuda, Cline said.

“Without observations, it’s kind of hard to forecast,” Cline said before adding that “ forecasts are for people to plan to protect their life and property, that’s why we’re here.”

At the College of William and Mary’s Keck Environmental Laboratory, lab director Randy Chambers said it was important for folks to move out of the potentially affected areas before the storm hit.

While he said he’s not one to opine on the weather, Chambers said he favors it when precautions are taken before hurricanes make landfall.

"I'm still all for application of precautionary principle when big events like hurricanes are involved, even if the spaghetti models don't agree on a storm track,” Chambers said.

When it comes to big storms though, Chambers said, “beyond one or two days out ... all bets are off!”

Before the forecasts showed Florence’s turn toward the Carolinas, the City of Williamsburg was on high alert, according to Deputy Fire Chief Larry Snyder.

On Monday, city staff and the fire department began coordinating and creating emergency response plans specific to Hurricane Florence.

“Obviously the initial forecast for Florence was much different than what it has turned out to be,” Snyder said.

While the city did not activate its emergency operation center, Snyder said, it was prepared to do so.

After the decision was made not to activate the emergency operations center on Thursday afternoon, Snyder said, firefighters remained at the station to watch the storm’s path, just in case.

“We always tell people to monitor the weather,” Snyder said. “Obviously the track for Florence was a great example, it was just unpredictable. We always tell people to be prepared.”

Despite dodging a direct hit from Florence, bands of heavy rain from the northern end of the hurricane are still forecast to hit Greater Williamsburg on Saturday, according to a National Weather Service forecast.

Coastal flood warnings remain in effect in Williamsburg, James City and York counties until 6 a.m. Sunday.

The National Weather Service lifted a tropical storm warning for parts of Southeastern Virginia on Friday. Governor Ralph Northam rescinded a mandatory evacuation order for Zone A residents on Friday after ordering their evacuation on Tuesday.

While there haven’t been any widespread power failures on the Virginia Peninsula, according to the Dominion Energy online outage map, waterlogged soil and predicted strong winds could be strong enough to topple trees onto power lines or elsewhere, according to the National Weather Service.

Hurricanes are the ficklest of storms, Cline said. The storm could still change routes, but forecasters are now able to take instrument readings of the storm from the ground.

However meteorologists look at a storm, every second is working against them and the people they’re trying to protect, Cline said.

“Since we don’t know exactly, that’s why we talk in probabilities,” Cline said. “That’s giving people the information they need to make decisions based on their risk, whether it be moving billions of dollars of ships or leaving their home to protect their life”

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Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329 or on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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