Not A Monster Storm, But Irene Still Packed A Punch

Hurricane Irene destroyed houses, flooded cities and caused billions of dollars of damage. But the destruction was less than expected because Irene turned out to be less powerful than forecasters predicted.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene. Renee Montagne is on assignment this month in Afghanistan.

Hurricane Irene destroyed houses and flooded cities, causing what is expected to be billions of dollars in damage. But the destruction did not turn out to be as serious as feared.

INSKEEP: That's certainly true in New York City. Khaled Ahmed, who owns the Olympic Deli and Grocery in New York, told Reuters he even came out ahead by keeping all his locations open through the storm.

Mr. KHALED AHMED (Owner, Olympic Deli and Grocery): We made a killing. I mean, we're more about being here for the people, but we made a killing.

INSKEEP: Officials like Mayor Michael Bloomberg were left defending the preventive steps they'd ordered.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): Nobody likes to shut down the economy of the city. Nobody likes to inconvenience people. But human lives are much more important.

GREENE: Elsewhere, in places like North Carolina, Virginia, now Vermont, there were serious, serious implications from the storm. And here to talk about the aftermath of the hurricane, is NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton.

Jon, good morning.

JON HAMILTON: Good morning.

GREENE: So why didn't Irene become the monster that forecasters were predicting?

HAMILTON: Well, there are a couple of things they didn't quite count on, the forecasters. For one thing, it stayed very close to land. And land tends to interfere with the workings of a hurricane.

Another thing that happened was it encountered something called wind sheer. That's where the wind is blowing a different speed or different direction at different altitudes. That tends to distort the shape of a hurricane and weaken it. And as it worked its way up the coast, it was sucking in dry wind. And hurricanes like wet wind. So, all those things were factors.

But, you know, the fact is that forecasters are really good at saying where a storm is going to go. They're not so good at saying how strong it's going to be once it gets there. And this is something that they're working on improving.

GREENE: Well, it seemed like the hurricane was downgraded, you know, faster than people expected. They started saying, you know, it's a category one. It's becoming a tropical storm. Why were people still hearing dire warnings, being told to evacuate, the worst is coming?

HAMILTON: There are a couple of reasons you could think of. One is it was a really big storm. And so even if it's being downgraded in terms of the wind speed, a really big storm is going to be a lot more dangerous than a smaller storm. This storm was hundreds and hundreds of miles across.

Also, remember it's the National Hurricane Center that issues forecasts. And they were busy updating and downgrading. They said it was going to be a three, then a two, then a one. But it's local governments that are responsible for telling people when to evacuate, things like that.

And you could argue they did a pretty sensible thing. You know, if you look at the amount of damage in places like Vermont. You look at the damage on the outer banks of North Carolina, you could say more people might've died had they not been, you know, still precautionary about it.

And the final thing is, the Katrina factor. You know, after Katrina, government officials were criticized for not taking the storm seriously enough. And I don't think any government official wants to be accused of doing that with another storm.

GREENE: You know, it seems like we haven't been thinking about hurricanes lately. And we heard all over the news this is the first one in a long time. Explain that for us. Are we in some kind of quiet period?

HAMILTON: We're in a little bit of a - it's been a quiet period in the United States. I mean, you know, usually we get about six hurricanes a year. This is the first hurricane of this year. But, you know, if you look at the Atlantic basin it has not been quiet at all.

Last year, there were 12 hurricanes in the Atlantic. That's twice the usual number. And five of those were major hurricanes. Two hundred and fifty people died, you know. So if you were in Mexico where you got hit several times you wouldn't think it was quiet - or Bermuda or Honduras or Belize or Costa Rica. It's only seemed quiet here in the United States.

GREENE: Take us through the rest of this hurricane season. Should people be hanging on to all the canned goods and toilet paper that they bought? I mean, should we be getting more storms?

HAMILTON: Well, forecasters are still expecting some hurricanes. You know, the season runs through the end of November. And we're really just in the peak of it right now. So it's not ready to - it's not time to let down your guard. OK?

Right now, as you look out in the Atlantic, there is a tropical storm called Jose. Now, it's probably not going to do anything. It looks like it's going to stay well out to sea.

But, you know, this is the time of year when storms tend to come off the coast of Africa. These waves, they call them, come off the coast of Africa, they develop over the Atlantic and they become big storms. That's where Irene came from. And they're expecting more of those.

Oh, I should say, right now, as you look at there, there's something called Tropical Depression 12. It doesn't have a name yet, but they're saying that it could become a hurricane by Thursday.

GREENE: We'll be keeping an eye on Tropical Depression 12.

It's NPR's Jon Hamilton.

Thank you, Jon.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

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