Hurricane Irene's Power Is Less, Scope Is Wide

Hurricane Irene has reached the coast of North Carolina, bringing heavy rains and winds of 85 miles per hour. But there IS some good news. The storm is turning out to be less powerful than forecasters expected. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR science reporter John Hamilton about the latest on Hurricane Irene.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Hurricane Irene smacked into North Carolina this morning, bringing heavy rains and winds of 85 miles per hour at the coast. There is some good news. As the storm tracks fast to the Northeast, it is turning out to be less powerful than forecasters had expected. Coming up, we'll here from two restaurant owners in North Carolina's Outer Banks to see how they're holding up in this storm. First, joined now in the studio by NPR's Jon Hamilton. Jon, thanks very much for being with us today.

JON HAMILTON: My pleasure.

SIMON: And please bring us up to date.

HAMILTON: So Irene made landfall early this morning along a string of barrier islands of the coast of North Carolina. And right now it's heading north and a bit east across the Outer Banks. That's a series of barrier islands where thousands of people have expensive vacation homes. So there's a lot of concern about that area. Irene is now a category-1 hurricane, and that's the least powerful category on the scale. A couple of days ago forecasters were actually expecting Irene to make landfall as a category-3 storm, which obviously would have been much more damaging. That has winds of more than 110 miles an hour. But still Irene is very large. When you look at satellite pictures of this hurricane, you can see this rotating mass of weather that's 500-miles across. And that's a pretty wide swath of destruction, even if the winds are decreasing.

SIMON: And the decrease in the wind speed. What kind of difference is that going to make to the people now who are living through it in the Outer Banks, and then as the storm moves up north?

HAMILTON: Well, if you have a house in the Outer Banks it will definitely make a difference. And the reason has to do with the kind of strange physics of wind resistance. When you double the wind speed, you actually quadruple the amount of force that wind exerts on something like a house that's in its way.

So lowering the wind speed even a few miles an hour really does help. Roofs are less likely to blow off, windows are less likely to break, fewer trees will be knocked over. But, of course, you know, the greatest damage from a hurricane usually isn't the wind. It's water that causes the problems. And Irene is producing a storm surge of as much as nine feet in places and it's remembering that a storm surge - an even bigger storm surge I should say - actually carved a new channel right through the islands of the Outer Banks back in 2003. So much water got piled up against the beach that it just carved a path right through to the sound side.

SIMON: Tell us about the rest of the East Coast, as we can lay it out right now. Are you confident, for example, that path that people have been projecting for a couple of days, up through New York is going to hold?

The track that the forecasters have made has been quite consistent now for a couple of days. And that usually means that they really know where the storm is going. The doubt usually has to do with the strength of the storm, not the track of it. So, you know, Irene is moving up the coast about 15 miles per hour and it looks pretty clear that it's going to cross the Outer Banks later today and that would put it into open water again. But then it's going to stay pretty close to the coast. Forecasters think it's going to brush past Virginia Beach and then go past Delaware, and then sometime tomorrow it's going to make landfall somewhere on Long Island, New York.

Does it pick up strength going over open water?

HAMILTON: It can, but not if the water's cold. And right now the water that it's going to be traveling over is not nearly as warm as the waters that produced this hurricane in the first place. So the short answer is, it's probably not going to pick up strength.

SIMON: And diminished as Irene is - there's still a lot of concern about the effects it can have in an area like New York.

HAMILTON: Absolutely. And the reason is, is that you have - first of all, you just have so many people in say, Manhattan and Lower Manhattan, and, you know, in Lower Manhattan the subways are actually below the level of the Hudson River. So, you can imagine, they have to pump out water all the time, even when there's not a hurricane. And now the concern is that if you raise the level a few feet you could have widespread flooding. You get a tidal surge. That could put streets under water, and as I understand it, the emergence workers there are actually prepared to use rescue boats in that part of Manhattan if they need to.

SIMON: NPR's Jon Hamilton, speaking with us live in our studios today, as we continue to track Hurricane Irene. Thanks so much.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

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