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Earth Sense: Enduring hurricanes can be boring for folks

POSTED: July 13, 2014 12:25 a.m.

The city of Wilmington, N.C., a frequent hurricane target, had a close brush with Arthur on the Fourth of July weekend.

Although Arthur set a new record by being the earliest tropical system to hit North Carolina in any given year, damage was less than expected. After making landfall at the Outer Banks as a category 2 storm with winds near 100 mph, Arthur continued to weaken, ruining the weekend for many along the northeastern coast.

Some questions are asked frequently:

“Why do they evacuate beach towns when a hurricane approaches?”

Although flying debris and falling trees are a threat, the real danger from these storms isn’t the wind. It’s the storm surge, a steep rise in ocean level caused by low air pressure. Storm surges can be dozens of feet tall and completely overpower barrier islands, which typically have elevations between zero and 15 feet.

On top of the surge are the wind-generated waves. This heavy onrush of water can sweep houses away entirely and rapidly.

“What’s it like to be in a hurricane?”

In a coastal town like Wilmington, it’s incredibly boring. Categories 1 to 3 (up to 130 mph winds) don’t make it essential to evacuate if you’re a few miles from the beach.

But it’s highly uncomfortable.

Rain pounds the house hard and can last more than 24 hours in some storms. The electricity is gone, windows are shuttered, the house is dark, hot and humid.

Fans and refrigerators are out of order. There is literally nothing to do.

When the storm finally leaves, prepare for lengthy waits as the stores, with their electricity off as well, try to supply bottled water, batteries and gasoline. Traffic lights are out of order, and the streets are full of fallen limbs, making driving hazardous.

Angry bees, with their nests destroyed, are ready to sting folks trying to clean up their yards.

“Why were there warning flags at the beach after the storm?”

The powerful waves of tropical storms produce rip currents in their aftermath, even after nice weather returns. A rip current consists of water rushing away from the beach, pulling even strong swimmers out into the ocean.

North Carolina lifeguards reported several emergency rescues but no drownings in the aftermath of Arthur.
Hurricane season has only started. Let’s hope that Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edward and the rest of this year’s tropical storms will be equally benign.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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