Hurricane Rita: The anatomy of a perfect storm

I dug up this NOAA satellite image of Hurricane Rita while going through some old files on my PC. It shows the rapid development of a perfect hurricane and the storm's equally rapid deterioration.

Rita formed during the horrific summer of 2005, a hurricane season unlike anything on record that produced 28 named storms. That was the summer of Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed New Orleans, and Hurricane Wilma, which intensified from a tropical storm to the most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Basin in barely 24 hours.

Rita became the fourth-most powerful storm on record for the Atlantic, surpassed only by Hurricane Wilma, Hurricane Gilbert (which formed in 1988) and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

Rita somehow didn’t get quite the same attention as the other powerful hurricanes that formed in 2005. The hurricane lost a lot of its strength before it made landfall at the Louisiana-Texas border on September 24. But it was still a very powerful Category 3 hurricane that inflicted severe damage. Paul Trotter, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Slidell, Louisiana, told me that for a few days, Rita turned southwestern Louisiana into “a third-world country.”

It’s fascinating to watch the storm form as it crosses the Straits of Florida and then get organized and crank up as it barrels westward across the Gulf of Mexico. (You'll probably need to play the video a couple of times to see it completely.) You can see the eye just starting to form as it passes the Florida Keys on September 20. The eye is becoming distinct somewhere around the Dry Tortugas later the same day.

By September 22, when the Rita is roughly due south of Mobile Bay, the hurricane is at full roar, with sustained winds of 180 miles an hour. At this point, Hurricane Rita is pretty much a perfect storm. Its eye is tiny and well-defined, the unmistakable characteristic of a hurricane at the apex of its strength.

Had Hurricane Rita made landfall at this intensity, it would have leveled everything in its path.

But luckily, these extremely powerful storms can’t hold on to that kind of intensity very long. In fact, the mechanism of their weakening is sort of built in to their mechanics when they become this powerful. At this peak intensity, hurricanes often start going through a process known as an eye-wall replacement cycle. This means that a new eye wall starts forming around the old one. It’s sort of like Mother Nature putting a noose around the hurricane’s neck and choking it down. While this cycle is taking place, the hurricane weakens. But once the cycle is completed and the new eye wall is in place, the storm can start re-intensifying until the next replacement cycle.

As Rita takes aim at Louisiana, you can see its eye starting to cloud over and become less distinct. By the time the center of the storm touches the coast, the eye is no longer visible, an indication that the hurricane has weakened considerably from its peak intensity.

Still, there were winds of about 120 miles an hour around that indistinct eye when it came ashore.

An active hurricane season has been predicted for the rest of this summer and fall. Tropical Storm Fay – the season’s sixth named storm – has been plaguing Florida with heavy rains for a week.

September 10, considered the peak of the season, is still several weeks away.


New Jersey, um, State Fair?

Someone says “New Jersey.” What comes to mind?

· Bruce (as in Springsteen).
· Tony (as in Soprano).
· Political corruption (as in, well, lots of it).
· Toll roads (as in New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, and thank God for EZPass).
· The City (as in, going over to).

Urban images, all of them. I’d bet more money than I can afford to lose that one phrase that would not come to mind would be this one: New Jersey State Fair. State fairs are for places like Iowa, and North Carolina, and Nebraska, and Georgia, and other states in the South and Midwest with largely rural populations and lots of dairy farms and people who are sincere and have no idea how to be sarcastic or world-weary or why an EZPass is so useful.

New Jersey State Fair? The state that gave us Frank Sinatra (from Hoboken) and Lou Costello (from Paterson), two thoroughly urban guys who probably couldn’t tell a bull from a steer (there is a small but critical difference, you can look it up), has a state fair?

Yes, they do. In Sussex County, well away from the smog and pavement and elbow-rubbing, NJ-Transit-riding, daily grind that is life as they know it from about Exit 9 northward on the Turnpike.

And as you’ve probably figured out, we discovered the New Jersey State Fair a few weeks ago. The video shows a brief parade of antique tractors. You can hear, over the putter of the engines, my brother-in-law Bob and I commenting as they pass by.

It was fun and totally unexpected, not the kind of thing you’d expect to do during a visit to Jersey. Gotta say, though, it was not nearly as big as the North Carolina State Fair.


I (heart) NY, mostly

I’ve never figured out how to deal with New York. I’m always a little edgy about going there, dreading the trip until I actually get there. Then, once I get settled in, I don’t want to leave.

I love the place. An hour just walking the streets in that city is one of the most stimulating experiences that’s available to me. In the space of a few blocks you’re likely to see more examples of extreme contrasts than you can comfortably assimilate in one day: examples of great art and crass kitsch, astonishing wealth and depressing poverty, stunning beauty and shocking ugliness, acts of touching and unnoticed generosity and blatant and infuriating selfishness.

I’ve always wished that I’d gotten my life together a little sooner and taken a shot at making it there. I wonder how my life might have been different. Of course, there’s the possibility -- or maybe the likelihood -- that I might have been a total failure and ended up much worse off than I am now.

I’m scared of New York. One of my worst fears is somehow getting totally lost in the city, alone, at night, with only change in my pocket and a dead battery in my cell phone. This fear coexists with the fascination and affection I feel for the place. It’s too big, too overwhelming, too over-stimulating, especially for a guy whose idea of a big city until he was 20 years old was Charlotte, North Carolina. I’ve got to add, however, that I’ve always intensely disliked Charlotte and can't imagine ever feeling the affection for that city that I feel for New York.

Anyway, we were in New York/New Jersey a couple of weeks ago. Went to a Bruce Springsteen concert at Giants Stadium, and my brother-in-law came up with great tickets for a Yankees game at Yankee Stadium.

I’m still learning how to use a new Nikon camera that has a digital video recorder, and my inexperience is obvious in the above video, which I shot while riding the NYC subway. The drummers hopped on the subway at one stop, banged out this little concert, took up a collection, and jumped off at the next stop to, I presume, repeat the performance on another train.

I got a kick out of the impromptu little concert but my niece, who lives in Brooklyn and rides the subway every day, says they happen too often as far as she's concerned and she’s pretty tired of them, especially when she’s had a rough day at the office and just wants to be left alone during the ride home. She says these kinds of things always impress the tourists, and I guess that’s why it impressed me.


Reasons for a busy hurricane season

We’re heading into the heart of the hurricane season, and the long-range forecasters at Colorado State University think the rest of the summer and early fall is going to be busy.

CSU forecasters Phil Klotzbach and William Gray upped their earlier predictions for the 2008 hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30. A news release sent out Tuesday by CSU predicts that the rest of the season will be “much more active … than the typical season between 1950 and 2000.” The revised CSU forecast says 17 named tropical storms will form, with nine of those storms developing into hurricanes.

Of those nine hurricanes, five will become major storms with winds exceeding 110 miles an hour. So far this year, five named storms have formed. Two of those storms have become hurricanes, including the mysterious Hurricane Bertha, which unexpectedly intensified into a major storm.

From 1950 to 2000, there was an average of about 10 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

Gray – a pioneer in long-range hurricane season forecasting – and his colleague Klotzbach base their revised estimate on several factors: Unusually warm sea surface temperatures – which could provide energy for developing hurricanes – low pressures at sea level over the tropical Atlantic in June and July, and a lot of activity in the so-called “deep tropics” east of Puerto Rico.

In an interview last month for National Geographic News, Klotzbach told me that when storms start forming east of Puerto Rico early in the summer, it’s a strong indicator that an active hurricane season is likely.

Hurricane Bertha formed off the west coast of Africa near the Cape Verde Islands, a notorious breeding ground for powerful hurricanes. But usually, the Cape Verde monsters don’t start forming until much later in the season. Bertha became a named storm on July 3 – the earliest Cape Verde storm on record.

On July 7, Bertha became a category 1 hurricane when its strongest winds reached 75 miles an hour. The storm wasn’t expected to strengthen much beyond that, but it astonished scientists when its winds cranked up to 115 miles an hour only 12 hours later.

Meteorologists couldn’t explain why Bertha underwent that burst of intensification. But the storm was far out at sea and not threatening any coastline, so hurricane hunter aircraft were not sent out to monitor the storm. Had the hurricane hunters flown into Bertha and gathered more data than was available from satellite monitoring, they may have discovered the reason for its sudden strengthening.

Klotzbach and Gray also think there’s a 67 percent probability that an intense hurricane is likely to make landfall somewhere on the U.S. coast before the season ends in November. That stretch of coastline includes Washington County, North Carolina. And that's, um, where Jane and I live.

The last hurricane to strike Washington County was Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. Although Isabel was a category 2 hurricane when it came ashore, it still packed quite a wallop. The Washington County Emergency Management Department clocked one of Isabel’s gusts at 120 miles an hour in downtown Plymouth when the eye of the storm arrived here.

The photo at the top shows Isabel’s handiwork on Washington Street in Plymouth. I shot it after the winds finally diminished some. That’s an oak tree that was snapped like a stick about seven feet above the ground.

I’m afraid we’re about due for a hurricane here. Of course, I hope I’m wrong.

More information about the Colorado State forecasts is at http://hurricane.atmos.colostate.edu/.