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IRA FLATOW, host:

Should Rita make landfall--well, it's not going to make landfall as a hurricane 4, but it would have been the first time in almost a hundred years had it done that and--since 1950--15 that two hurricanes of such intensity would have hit the United States. And actually, still, according to NOAA, this 2005 Atlantic hurricane season began as the most active on record. There were already four named storms by July 5th, and it has continued to outpace early expectations.

Joining me now is Gerry Bell, lead forecaster for NOAA's seasonal hurricane outlook at the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service in Camp Springs, Maryland.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. GERRY BELL (Climate Prediction Center; National Weather Service): Good to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Do Rita and Katrina fit in with NOAA's predictions for the hurricane season?

Mr. BELL: Oh, yes, they do. In May, we had indicated that this would be a very active hurricane season, with three to five major hurricanes likely. We've now had five major hurricanes. So it's certainly consistent with our predictions.

FLATOW: And, in fact, you had to upgrade your predictions, did you not, in early August?

Mr. BELL: Yeah. We upgraded the prediction to approximately 19 named storms, nine to 11 hurricanes and five to seven major hurricanes. And we're still on track for that forecast. And the reason was, was because of all the early season activity. The main part of the activity during the peak of the season is pretty much as it was predicted in both May and August.

FLATOW: And how much of the season is left--What?--till the end of November?

Mr. BELL: The hurricane season runs through the end of November, but the peak of the season typically runs from mid-August through about mid-October.

FLATOW: And that--so then we still have a good--What?--five weeks to go...

Mr. BELL: Oh, sure, we're still...

FLATOW: ...for the mid--the peak of the season.

Mr. BELL: We're still well into the peak of the hurricane season, and that'll last for another several weeks. But even so, one often sees in these very active seasons lingering hurricanes or tropical storms even in late October or November.

FLATOW: So we could expect still more hurricanes to be coming in this season.

Mr. BELL: That's correct.

FLATOW: Are there any out there that might look at this point--or little depressions or thunderstorms somewhere out over Africa spinning in our direction?

Mr. BELL: Well, there's always tropical disturbances moving across the Atlantic, and it just takes the right set of conditions for one of those to develop. And since we're in the peak of the season, overall, the conditions are generally favorable, but those are--the individual predictions are made by the National Hurricane Center.

FLATOW: We had--last time we talked about this, we talked about having a record number of tropical storms in June and July. Can you give us an update on what August had in store?

Mr. BELL: August was--August and September have also been very active, consistent with a very active hurricane season. The interesting thing about this season, the fact that we had so many systems in July, was because the conditions that we expected to produce a lot of activity during August and September actually had set up by early July and, as a result, produced a lot of activity early in the season. Typically, we don't have that amount of activity during June and July.

FLATOW: So that's what made you revise the forecast. It was set up to produce these kinds of storms. When you say `set up,' what do you mean by that?

Mr. BELL: Well, there's a specific set of atmospheric and oceanic conditions that are required to produce an active hurricane season, and that set of conditions really is three main ingredients. One is the wind shear. As you go up through the atmosphere, hurricanes require very little wind shear or really very little change in the winds as you go up through the atmosphere. And low wind shear patterns had already established by July. Another one is warmer than normal ocean waters. The waters have been anywhere from 1 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit above normal throughout the season. And the third ingredient is a very favorable midlevel--middle of the levels of the atmospheric jet stream that comes off of Africa, and that jet stream, during these active seasons, is very efficient at helping to strengthen the tropical disturbances that come off of Africa. And then as they move westward, they move into the very low wind shear, warm ocean water environment, and that's when they become hurricanes or major hurricanes.

FLATOW: And we are in a cycle, are we not, of above-average hurricane levels that go--What?--they go--they span 20, 25, 30 years?

Mr. BELL: That's right. The-- Atlantic hurricane seasons have cycles of 20 to 30 years, alternating between active and inactive decades. We've been in a very active hurricane era since 1995. Since '95, nine of the last 11 hurricane seasons have been above normal. And that's in complete contrast to what we saw the previous 25-year period. If you look at 1970 to 1994, there were only three active seasons in 25 years. Now we've had nine out of the last 11. And because we're in an active hurricane era, we expect these ongoing high levels of hurricane activity and critically high levels of hurricane landfall to continue for another decade or perhaps two.

FLATOW: But you--have you ever seen two Category 5's within a month of each other?

Mr. BELL: I personally have not. Last year, we had a couple of very, very long-lived major hurricanes. The specific conditions within which the hurricanes form ultimately determine their strength, and that's not really something you predict on a seasonal time scale. It really just depends on the weather patterns that are in place. In this particular case, we've had very persistent high pressure over the Southeastern US and Gulf of Mexico, and that's favored these extremely strong storms. Normally when hurricanes are this strong, they're out more in the Atlantic Ocean as opposed to the Gulf of Mexico.

FLATOW: Also, one thing that affects the strength of hurricanes is the fact of whether we're having an El Nino or not. Is that not correct?

Mr. BELL: That's true. The El Nino and counterpart, La Nina--the El Nino-La Nina cycle is one of the main climate factors that helps to determine whether a season will be active or not. El Nino tends to reduce hurricane activity. In fact, the only two years since 1995 that were not above normal were the two El Nino years, 1997 and 2002.

FLATOW: And that '95 year was almost like a switch turned on, was it not? It...

Mr. BELL: That's right. We saw...

FLATOW: It's so strong in '95, but right after, there was hardly anything comparable.

Mr. BELL: That's right. And that's typically how these cycles go. You tend to be in a very active era for 20 to 30 years or so, and then there's a fairly rapid transition to the opposite state. We saw that in the late 1960s. We saw it again in 1995. And that's often how atmospheric cycles go.

FLATOW: Yeah. So if we're 10 years into--from 1995, let's say, to 2005, then we've got another 10 or 15, 20 years to go.

Mr. BELL: Absolutely. And that is an extremely important point for coastal United States residents, because during these active hurricane seasons and eras, when we have active hurricane seasons, on average, two to three hurricanes strike the United States, whereas during inactive seasons, on average, only one hurricane strikes the US. So this is a doubling to tripling of the normal land of the--landfall activity that we're seeing now compared to the '70s and '80s and early '90s.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. BELL: And these high level of landfalls are expected to continue, as you said, for another decade or two.

FLATOW: We've got a whole new level to watch. Thank you very much, Gerry Bell, for taking time to talk with us.

Mr. BELL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Gerry Bell is lead forecaster for NOAA's seasonal hurricane outlook at the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service in Camp Springs, Maryland.

We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more about Hurricane Rita, talk a little bit about Katrina on special coverage. Stay with us.

This is special coverage from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

We're talking about watching and waiting and talking about Hurricane Rita and a little bit about the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. We've just heard Gerry Bell talk about how we are in an era of increased hurricanes. They come on multidecade cycles, 20, 25, 30 years. We're now about 10 years into one of these cycles and--which is not good news when you think about it. If we can expect two of these every summer now for the next 20 to 25 years, imagine the kind of havoc we would have to expect and be ready to anticipate.

And how much of this possibly now could be exacerbated by global warming? If we add on a cycle, could there be a global warming part to it that even makes it worse? Well, that's what we're going to talk about a little bit now, is how much could global warming be to blame for the increase and the strengths of these hurricanes?

My next two guests have recently published studies that address these questions, one in last week's issue of the journal Science and one in the journal Nature this past summer. Judy Curry is professor and chair of the School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. JUDY CURRY (School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Good afternoon to you. Kerry Emanuel, professor of department of Earth and Atmospheric, Planetary Sciences at the MI--Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Welcome back.

Professor KERRY EMANUEL (MIT): It's nice to be back.

FLATOW: Hi. How are you?

Prof. EMANUEL: Fine.

FLATOW: Dr. Curry, you've documented an increase in these very powerful hurricanes. You're saying we're getting bigger storms. They are becoming--you know, that we're not just imagining this?

Dr. CURRY: Yes. And what we did, what were the focus in a lot of the studies that you've been hearing about has been on the North Atlantic. We thought it was important to look at global hurricane statistics to see what was going on globally. And what we found globally was that the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, which are the most--the strongest, most damaging ones, has almost doubled in the last 35 years. And we've heard a lot about the--you know, the 30-year-ish...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. CURRY: ...cycles in the North Atlantic, but in the other ocean basins, like Pacific and the Indian Ocean, there aren't such long-term cycles. They're more on the scale of 10 years or less. So what we're seeing is this global increase in tropical surface temperature that doesn't--the kind of cycle that explains the North Atlantic variability can't be used to explain the global variability, and so it looks like there is a long-term trend in global tropical sea surface temperature that is fueling the increase in the Category 4 and 5 storms globally.

FLATOW: And the sea surface temperature you're attributing to global climate change, global warming?

Dr. CURRY: Well, the globe is warming. To what extent this can be attributed to burning of fossil fuels is certainly being debated widely, but there's clearly some component of this. Otherwise, you couldn't really explain the fact that you're getting global...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. CURRY: ...you know, temperature increases in the tropical ocean.

FLATOW: Kerry Emanuel, how does your research differ or back up what Judy Curry is saying?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, my research is very consistent with what you just heard from Professor Curry. I looked at a slightly different data set. It certainly has a strong overlap with what she looked at. And with mine, I could look back a little bit further in time, and what I found is very much consistent with that. I looked at a somewhat different measure of tropical cyclones, one that deals with the energy they release over their lifetimes, and find that it's very well correlated with sea surface temperature. And as Professor Curry says, that when you look globally--and it's very important to do that and to remember that only about 11 percent of the world's storms occur in the Atlantic--you do see this upward trend that's very well correlated with sea surface temperature, and the people who have looked at sea surface temperature, most of them do believe that the upswing we've seen in the last century has got a strong manmade component to it.

FLATOW: And, in fact, the sea surface temperature in the Gulf is above normal. It's over 90 degrees in some places, is it not?

Prof. EMANUEL: Yes, it is above normal, and it was above normal before Katrina as well, and it's a little bit hard when you get down to that kind of local scale, the Gulf of Mexico, and local in--time to sort of pin that on global warming. You can't say it's not global warming, but you'd be a little bit hard-pressed to attribute that to that. We have done these sort of exercises and saying, well, supposing that Katrina had happened exactly the same way it did, but supposing the Gulf of Mexico was its normal temperature, which means literally that it's the average temperature over many years, and it was a little bit weaker. It may have been about 10 knots weaker under those conditions. So I think the warmth of the Gulf played a role, but I'd be cautious in attributing that local-scale warmth to global warming.

FLATOW: Dr. Curry, are there more hurricanes or are the hurricanes getting stronger?

Dr. CURRY: We haven't seen any trend globally of increased numbers of hurricanes; although there is a slight increase in the Atlantic, but we don't see that increase in overall number. What we are seeing is the increase in the Category 4 and 5. Category 1's are actually going down. In the Category 2 and 3's, there doesn't seem to be a trend. The uptick is in the Category 4 and 5.

FLATOW: Why is there a difference between what we see in--around the world in terms of the cycle of--this multidecade cycle, we see that--we're talking about a 20- or 30-year cycle in the Atlantic--and only the 10-year cycle around the rest of the world?

Dr. CURRY: Well, the Atlantic is sort of an unusual basin. There's a strong--largely driven by processes and, you know, high latitudes up by Greenland, you have an influence on the thermohaline circulation of the Atlantic. I know that's a $10 word, but it's something--the Atlantic dances to its own drummer, if you will, and a lot of things happen in the Atlantic by itself. And a lot of the decadal modes, the 10-year sort of cycles in the Pacific, you tend to have them just in a basin and they're sort of on different time scales, so these modes of variability, the natural cycles don't really line up together.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. CURRY: You know, you usually have it high in one basin and low in the other basin, but now we're seeing this consistent global ocean trend of increasing temperatures that isn't really explainable by these cycles.

FLATOW: Kerry Emanuel, you're the author of "Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes." With Hurricane Rita heading toward Texas, you have to think back to the Galveston, you know, hurricane in 1900, which basically put the island underwater, didn't it, and killed over 6,000 people.

Prof. EMANUEL: That's right. That, in terms of loss of life, was far and away our nation's worst natural disaster. It was in September of 1900. That is thought to have been a Category 4 hurricane, and although there was some warning, there was an awful lot of fooling around, let's say, and incorrect deductions and politics that interfered with the information getting to where it needed to get, so when it actually hit Galveston, people really didn't have any warning, and that certainly contributed to the spectacular and unfortunate loss of life in that event.

FLATOW: Before the invention of radio in 1900, how was warning sent out? You know, I can understand if you had radio and ships at sea would be in the middle of the hurricane and send a note to the island or to the mainland and say, `Get out of the way.' How were you warned before then?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, that's a very good question. What we had in those days was--of course, we had observations on land, including islands, and we didn't have wireless yet, but we did have telegraphs. So the Cubans knew, for example, that there was a storm making out into the Gulf of Mexico, and they tried to warn the Americans, but the head of the Weather Service in those days was extremely jealous of the Cubans, because they were really good forecasters, and forbade anybody in the United States from listening to the Cubans, so that played a role.

But there were other things that even in 1900, people, trained meteorologists, could do. One of them has to do with the sea itself. When you have a big hurricane like Rita, it generates a whole series of waves, but the waves that move out fastest in front of the storm are the really long swells. And so one of the signs that a hurricane was coming was the--you know, maybe a day or two ahead of time, if there weren't any islands to interfere with these waves coming in, you started to get these really long breakers on the beach. And the meteorologists of the day, including the meteorologists in Galveston, they were trained to sort of time those swells and to see if they started to get more frequent, and that was an indication that you had something out there. So there were signs that there was a big storm coming, but there were complications that prevented that information from having the desired effect.

FLATOW: And as we watch Hurricane Rita heading toward the Gulf Coast, are we worried also that we might, you know, lose parts of that island again, the barrier island?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, fortunately for Galveston, but not for other places, I think Rita is sort of heading off to the north and east of Galveston, and the left side of the storm track in the Northern Hemisphere is generally less severe than the right side. So, you know, there will certainly be swells and a rise of the sea, but whether it actually floods Galveston Island, I don't know. On the other hand, the land in the path of the storm is certainly in great danger of storm surge and flooding.

FLATOW: I was browsing through the NOAA Web site and looking at pictures from satellites and they had some spectacular pictures from Hurricane Katrina at some of the barrier islands in the Gulf, and how the water just moved the whole island and basically took 75--it looked like 75 percent of the island--just took it away.

Prof. EMANUEL: Yep. And hurricanes have done that. I mean, a lot of the inlets you see carved, for example into the Barrier Islands on the East Coast were made by hurricanes, and hurricanes can do the opposite. They can fill up inlets with sand and block them off. So if you look at the geography of the barrier islands along the Gulf and East Coast, they've changed since people started to write histories about--and a lot, because of big storms, a lot of which are hurricanes.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Brian in Milwaukee--Milwautie, Oregon, is it?

BRIAN (Caller): Milwaukie, Oregon.

FLATOW: Milwaukie. I just was thinking about beer. I'm sorry.

BRIAN: Oh, yeah. Well, so do I, occasionally. My question was, if ocean temperature affects the size or number of hurricanes, could these larger hurricanes be part of an equilibrium mechanism? Does a large hurricane lower the temperature of the ocean in any way, or could, you know, a series of larger storms be the reason, in fact, smaller storms comes along later because the conditions have been changed by the storms themselves?

FLATOW: Dr. Curry?

Dr. CURRY: Yes. What happens when you have a hurricane is the evaporation that fuels a storm actually serves to cool the ocean, and the strong wind acts to stir the ocean, so you bring colder water up from down low. Now what we're seeing in the Gulf this season is the warm layer is so deep, we're not seeing that mix, that cooling from deep mixing. It's so deep that we just can't--it's not strong enough to mix it up. And it's exacerbated further by the warm water being brought in through the loop current, I mean, coming down from the Caribbean, OK, into the Gulf, so it's not just the average temperature of the Gulf that's an issue. We have this very warm plume coming into the Gulf, and when Rita intensified to 5, it passed over that warm current, and then it's moved off since then, which is why it weakened, so you can really see the sea surface temperature effect in action. Normally, you would have expected a hurricane like Rita to cool off the Gulf, but it didn't happen this year because it's so deep, and we have this warm current, very warm current from the Caribbean coming in.

FLATOW: We're talking about Hurricane Rita this hour on special coverage from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're actually awaiting a statement by the acting director of FEMA, David Paulison, who, any moment now, as we say, will be coming on. We'll bring you parts of his statement as he gets ready to deliver it.

Dr. Curry, were you surprised that we had two 5's, Category 5's almost in a row here in the Gulf?

Dr. CURRY: Well, yeah, I was until I realized how deep that warm water layer is. OK?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. CURRY: Normally you would expect--I mean, but the scary thing is I don't see what's going to break up that situation in the Gulf. So I wouldn't rule out another big one coming through and going through the exact same development. That warm water is apparently going to still be there after Rita, and you've still got more coming in from this loop current. So the conditions are going to remain favorable, I guess, for the rest of the season.

FLATOW: And we have two months of the season and we have five weeks of the peak time of the season to go.

Dr. CURRY: Yeah. I mean, it's--it could get worse.

FLATOW: And, in fact, you know, there are all these other hurricanes we don't even talk about, because Pauletta's(ph) out there and, you know, the--because they're not coming close to land, they continue to spur other hurricanes coming off of Africa...

Dr. CURRY: Well, this is a good point. You know, when you're trying to--there's a lot been made about the long-term statistics of landfalling hurricanes in the US. Again, those are of great interest for a variety of reasons, but you can't use those statistics to infer what's going on the Atlantic or what's going on globally. I mean, there's only a few of them that actually make it to landfalling.

FLATOW: In the austral climates, when they have their summers, are their hurricanes becoming just as intense as ours?

Dr. CURRY: Yes. Yes, you're seeing it in the South Indian Ocean and the Pacific, as well. You don't get hurricanes in the South Atlantic where the water is just too cold, but in the South Pacific and the Indian Oceans, you're seeing the same kinds of trends.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Can hurricanes pop up just about anywhere between Africa and the Caribbean?

Dr. CURRY: Well, they seem to--yeah. They seem to be generated by these waves coming off the coast of Africa. So there's that line going westward where they tend to pop up. You know, pretty much anywhere along that...

FLATOW: And what makes them suddenly turn into a tropical storm, getting enough power, enough energy from the ocean?

Dr. CURRY: Well, that's certainly necessary, but you need the wind circulations to work out. You know, there's the wind sheer issue, stretching deformation, and you basically have to have the winds conspiring to help you get that whole curvature thing going. So it's a combination of...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And--yeah.

Dr. CURRY: To get one initiated, you need to the combination of the warm water and the winds working in your favor.

FLATOW: And, you know, you mentioned the fact that we have five weeks to go in peak hurricane season, and this is even scary to hurricane watchers the size of these hurricanes. If Katrina was $100 billion hurricane and this is going to be tens of billions, probably not as big, but it could be tens of billions, and we're getting two or maybe three of these a year, how do we handle that? You know, that's...

Dr. CURRY: It doesn't add up. OK, you have to assess the risk to your coastal cities and put some sort of risk management strategy in place to handle this. I mean, prevention is worth many pounds of cure in this case. You've got to do the engineering. You've got to get the evacuation and you've got to get the supplies in the right place at the right time. I mean, we need a whole lot better planning and we need a lot better engineering, and we also have to have the debate about if this is a global warming thing, do we need to be rethinking what we're doing with our energy policy.

FLATOW: Kerry, I got about 30 seconds before the break. You want to add to that?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, I just want to add that I agree with everything that Professor Curry said. I think that we really have to rethink the whole business about coastal development and we're subsidizing it through insurance policy. We're actually essentially footing the bill for people to build in risky places by holding their insurance rates artificially low.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, we're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more about Hurricane Rita, a little bit about Hurricane Katrina. Stay with us. We'll be right back, talking with Judy Curry and Kerry Emanuel and taking your calls. Stay with us for special coverage on NPR News.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is special coverage from NPR News.

(Announcements)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. You're listening to special coverage from NPR News.

We're talking about Hurricane Rita and what the preparations are being made. And right now the acting director of FEMA is giving a press conference. Let's go listen in on David Paulison talking a little bit.

Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Acting Director, FEMA): ...preparations in Hurricane Rita. We medevaced last night 3,200 patients from Beaumont, Texas, and moved them into Ellington, Texas, and Jasper, Texas. The Department of Defense has almost 50,000 active-duty and National Guard personnel on the ground and aboard ships to support relief efforts after we move in. They have 13,000 active-duty people and almost 37,000 National Guard people already on the ground. And we also have 100 helicopters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and 45 fixed-wing aircraft. And so we're moving very carefully and very strongly to make sure that we are going to have the assets to move and have the capability of moving our people in as soon as this storm passes. Our thoughts are with those in the Gulf course. I hope that everyone's listening...

Unidentified Woman: Charles, we've got McChesney up and leveled...

Mr. PAULISON: ...be ready to take care of their families. And I know how difficult it's going to be after the storm. It's going to be a few days before the first-responders can get in there. So please stay where you are, stay in a safe location and do not return to your home until the authorities tell you it's safe to do so. Don't drive in floodwaters. Don't drive on bridges that look like they've been barricaded. Stay away from downed power lines, you know, all those safety things we tell people. We'd like you just to stay in place until the authorities tell you it's safe to move back into your homes.

And just in closing, we are here, FEMA's going to be here. We are going to make sure that you get taken care of. And thank you very much. And what I'd like to do now is just to answer a few questions.

FLATOW: You're listening to the acting director of FEMA, David Paulison, briefing the press on preparations for dealing with Hurricane Rita, talking about--as they said there were 17 urban search-and-rescue teams on the ground, they are stocking food and water supplies and soldiers are there in anticipation of Hurricane Rita making landfall early tomorrow morning.

On the line with us now is NPR correspondent John McChesney. He's in Houston.

Hi, John. Are you there?

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi.

McCHESNEY: How are you? I am here.

FLATOW: You know, I'm tempted to say, `Houston, it looks like we've had a problem,' especially with that human storm surge. Has the traffic jam inside of Houston cleared? What--we heard about the hundred-mile backup. Is that still happening? What is going on?

McCHESNEY: I think that's pretty much cleared out. You know, it's been--it's not as if everything has cleared out there in terms of all of the abandoned vehicles and the people who were stranded there. And, you know, there was a terrible tragedy this morning where a bus transporting elderly people caught on fire and burned, and I think 24 people were killed in that.

FLATOW: Right.

McCHESNEY: But I think the traffic jam has cleared. Here in Houston, inside Houston, which is where I'm sitting, it's almost like a neutron bomb has gone off here. It's a deserted town.

FLATOW: Really?

McCHESNEY: You can drive down--I drove down this morning, into downtown Houston, you know, the huge steel and glass skyscrapers, nobody on the streets except a few homeless people and a few cops cruising, looking for looters. And it's eery to go to a major American city like this and see no one.

FLATOW: Hmm. You know, we saw reports of people stuck in that traffic jam, saying, you know, `I've been out here for 12 hours. I'm going to run out of gasoline. I may as well turn around and go back home and sit in my own house waiting for the storm.' Do you get the impression from running around and driving around Houston that you could see anybody coming back to town in frustration?

McCHESNEY: Not so much people coming back. I went to several filling stations this morning, the few that have any gas left...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

McCHESNEY: ...and, you know, there are lines and lines of cars, 25, 30 cars deep, waiting to try to buy what little gas there is left. And I talked to people there and what they said was, `You know, we heard the reports, we looked at this and we said there is no point getting out on that highway and trying to get out of town. We'd rather sit it out here than to go through the miseries of what was out on the highway.' So a lot of people have stayed here. I say a lot--I can't give you any quantitative estimate.

FLATOW: Right.

McCHESNEY: Obviously, huge numbers of people left. But there are people who stayed and they're battling to find what little gasoline and supplies there are in this town, and almost everything is boarded up.

The gas stations are interesting because they've become sort of community centers where people waiting in these huge lines get together and talk about the hurricane and talk about what's happening.

FLATOW: Yeah.

McCHESNEY: Bring their pets, people talk about their pets.

FLATOW: Yeah. My...

McCHESNEY: It's a very...

FLATOW: It's communal.

McCHESNEY: It is. The gas station scenes--I saw one yesterday that flared up, you know. It was 100 degrees and people lost their tempers and they were near fisticuffs. But this morning what I found was a much more communitarian spirit, people talking and taking--being patient in the lines and, you know, waiting to get gas, not losing their tempers. And I think things have settled down, partly because the city is so quiet right now.

FLATOW: Yeah. It feels almost like you're in the calm before the storm.

McCHESNEY: Well, we are. It's that proverbial thing. Overhead right now I'm looking up and, you know, the cloud cover is increasing, the wind's kicking up probably no more than, here in Houston, about 20 knots at the most. The trees are beginning to sway around, but it's still a sunny, hot day with broken clouds above, and we're not expecting to get, you know, whacked until around 6:00 tonight when the rains begin.

FLATOW: Well, find a high spot, John, and be safe.

McCHESNEY: (Laugh) Well, the spot we're in is, we're in the heart of the Medical Center of Houston, which--I've never seen so many hospitals in one place. There must be 20 or 30 hospitals here, and it floods down here. But the hospitals say they're well-prepared. They aren't--you know, Houston may dodge the bullet this time, Ira.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. We can only hope. Thanks for taking time to talk with us, and good luck to you, John.

McCHESNEY: All right, Ira. Thank you.

FLATOW: NPR correspondent John McChesney on the line from Houston, Texas.

We're talking about waiting for the big one, a little less big one--it's now a Category 3 hurricane--Hurricane Rita, headed toward the Gulf Coast, scheduled to make landfall sometime about dawn, sometime between 3 and 8:00 in the morning, we were told just a few minutes ago by the weather forecasting people. No one knows quite sure exactly when that is going to happen because, as we know, hurricanes have almost a mind of their own of where they're going, although they're getting much better at predicting the path of hurricanes when they get to the last few days of landfall.

Also my guests this hour--we're talking with Kerry Emanuel, author of "Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes," out this year by Oxford University Press. He's a professor in the department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT. And Judy Curry, professor and chair of the School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

And I want to bring up a point I mentioned before and Dr. Curry talked about. And I want to--I didn't have time to ask Kerry Emanuel about this. If, as we're hearing, that the trend for the next decade or two is going to be for much stronger hurricanes and hurricanes that come through the Atlantic into the Gulf Coast and these hurricanes, you know, could carry, pack very high winds and could wreak a whole lot of damage into the tens of billions of dollars for each of them, and you can get two or three of them a season, we don't have the plans or budgetary means--or no one has really thought about that kind of damage and taking care of it, Kerry Emanuel, have they?

Prof. EMANUEL: No. No. I mean, we're certainly not prepared for that. That starts to take a really big bite out of the economy. And all of this relates to a point back toward the beginning of the program that Gerry Bell was talking about, that in the Atlantic, we have these big multidecadal cycles which are natural, and we had a very quiet period from the late '60s on through 1995. And during this period, there was a huge buildup of the coastal population and the infrastructure. We were lulled into a sense of complacency. I distinctly remember a succession of directors of the National Hurricane Center during this time going around to various cities in the Gulf Coast and going to Congress and saying, you know, `We've got to wake up and stop doing this. We're going to get clobbered over and over again,' and no one listened and we're now paying the price for that. And we're going to have to have some very serious changes in policy to handle what's coming over the next few decades.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Paul in Kansas. Hi, Paul.

PAUL (Caller): Hi. While I understand that this all could be explained by natural cycles, it seems tragic that global warming has become seemingly less of a scientific matter or a public health issue than it is a political issue. And it seems like we surely, after this kind of a season with these storms, that we need to at least entertain the possibility and debate the possibility in Congress that maybe our public policy issue needs to change, we need to take this a whole lot more seriously and consider, as Professor Curry said earlier, changing energy policy and so forth. It seems like, you now, Congress can have hearings on steroids in baseball, but they can't seem to turn their attention to this kind of thing that seems a heck of a lot more important. Yet shouldn't there be more of a debate in Congress instead of more in the media and how does--if it needs to happen, how do we get that kind of debate started?

FLATOW: Professor Curry, any suggestions?

Dr. CURRY: How to get it--yeah, the climate community has been very frustrated, frankly, in terms of trying to get the right kind of attention for this problem. It's just been very, very frustrating. If there's a silver lining in this cloud of all the damage associated with the hurricanes, people are staring to think more seriously about global warming as having some really serious consequences for the US and the world and a huge potential cost. I mean, that's far more expensive than some of the so-called--people say it's too expensive to fix global warming. Well, it's not half as expensive as the bill we're going to be paying for all this hurricane damage.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. CURRY: So people--we need to have this debate, and I hope that this situation with these hurricanes this season will help spur the debate.

FLATOW: Kerry Emanuel, you've talked a lot about before we fix a broken window, we also have to look at the natural resources, the wetlands, and getting them back up to par so that they act as better barrier islands.

Prof. EMANUEL: That's right. I mean, this whole problem has many, many dimensions. And the one you just talked about is an important one in that in trying to engineer our way to better waterways and safer cities, sometimes we do things that inadvertently have the effect of making us more susceptible to thinks like storm surges. And it's known now that, you know, a large expanse of wetlands can really help to damp out the storm surge. We get rid of them, we make ourselves more vulnerable. So it's not just a matter of more people being put in harm's way--that's a huge effect--but that once they're there, they do things to alter the natural landscape in ways that actually increase the vulnerability in many cases.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking about Hurricane Rita this hour on special coverage from NPR News in New York. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Kerry Emanuel and Judy Curry.

And if global warming is going to become more of a factor and if, as part of global warming, you have an expanding sea from the temperature of the oceans expanding and also a rising sea level from melting of the glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, aren't there other cities on coastal areas that need to look at New Orleans and look at the Gulf Coast here and say, `You know, this could be me soon'?

Prof. EMANUEL: Well, certainly that's true. And, in fact, the point has been made by my colleagues for many, many years and many decades. It's not just New Orleans or Galveston--those are certainly very vulnerable places; there are a lot of vulnerable places along the coast, many, many, many. And some are perhaps more vulnerable than others. We worry very much about the Keys, the Florida Keys, because it just--the practicalities of evacuating people...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. EMANUEL: You see what happened in Houston...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. EMANUEL: ...and Houston has these enormous highways. Well, you know, the Keys--in some places, that road's only two lanes wide. What are you going to do?

But, you know, there's another aspect of this, that each of these disasters has a different character. You know, Andrew was a terrible disaster. Almost all the damage was direct wind damage. Water wasn't a big issue in Andrew. Then along comes Katrina where there was terrific wind damage but also the majority of damage was done by the storm surge and the breaking of the levees. Now we have Rita and, you know, this may turn to be yet different. You know, it's down to a Category 3--it'll do damage when it makes landfall, and we'll just hope and pray that it's not much. But the other thing that has us worried is that it's forecast to stall somewhere around the intersection of Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. And if it does that, history shows that it can produce catastrophic floods from rain, and I wonder if we're prepared for that. Each of the--we're always prepared for the last disaster, you know. What's the next disaster going to look like?

FLATOW: Hmm. Professor Curry.

Dr. CURRY: Well, I agree with Kerry. I don't have anything to add to that. That was very well put.

FLATOW: So we have the threat of the water coming now southward, so to speak. Instead of the hurricane causing the swelling up of the ocean and the surge northward, we now have the rains heading over the inland and then flooding now--What?--the Mississippi or just flooding in general?

Dr. CURRY: Yeah. And I'll make a comment. The hardest thing in predicting what a hurricane's going to do is the actual amount of rainfall. That's the toughest thing for us to do right now.

FLATOW: Yeah. And we've already heard reports that the levees of New Orleans are not holding very well...

Dr. CURRY: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...and New Orleans is beginning to flood in certain areas there. Do...

Prof. EMANUEL: I'm looking at a picture of a broken levee in The New York Times right now in New Orleans, and it doesn't look good.

FLATOW: How do we allow people to go back? If you're thinking of two or three of these a season and it's going to go on for years, you know, when do you tell people it's safe to go back to live in places like that?

Dr. CURRY: Well, you know, the Dutch--they live below sea level and they have seriously done some very serious engineering. They're preparing for the 10,000-year flood. It would have to be something truly cataclysmic to get past their seawalls and levees and dykes and everything. And so you can do a really good job of engineering, you know, and protect these coastal cities.

At the other extreme, you have, like, Bangladesh--they're so poor they can't afford to do anything. They have very frequent inundations with huge loss of life and property and even their whole delta region is just eroding away.

The worst thing we can do is to be in the middle, is to have some levees that aren't good enough but they're there so people have a false sense of security that it's going to be OK. I mean, that's what we saw in Louisiana. I mean, we have to--if we're going to really redevelop, you know, New Orleans and really protect this coastal region, we have to look to the Dutch and do some serious engineering or we have to rethink, you know, the settlement that we're doing in the coastal regions. Doing it halfway, the way we've been doing it, leaves us susceptible for more Katrina-New Orleans-type situations.

FLATOW: All right, we've run out of time. I would like to thank you both for taking time to talk with us. Kerry Emanuel, author of "Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes," out this year, and professor in the department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT in Cambridge. And Professor Judy Curry. She's professor and chair of the School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thank you both for taking time to talk with us today.

Prof. EMANUEL: You're welcome.

Dr. CURRY: You're welcome. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Have a good weekend.

(Credits)

FLATOW: For NPR NEWS special coverage, I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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