Mid-season assessment shows businesses had some scares, but most came through OK
A phalanx of late-summer hurricanes fired fast and furious across the Atlantic, slamming Haiti, Cuba and the Turks and Caicos, and putting much of the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts in harm’s way. When the storms abated, however, boats, marinas and boatyards in the U.S. had escaped with only modest damage.
The Atlantic waters off Africa gave birth to five named storms in less than three weeks in August and early September. The tropical blitz kept forecasters grinding out advisories and gave coastal residents from the Carolinas to Florida to Texas a severe case of the jitters, as two of the storms — Gustav and Ike — grew into Category 4 behemoths.
On Sept. 2, four storms — Gustav, Hanna, Ike and Josephine — were churning simultaneously in the Atlantic, over Cuba and inland over Louisiana.
“It has happened before,” says Dennis Feltgren, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Forecasters tracked five named storms at once — Felix, Humberto, Iris, Jerry and Luis — in August 1995.
This time around, New Orleans and surrounding parishes — still not recovered from 2005’s devastating Katrina — evacuated a million people in a well-executed mobilization, as Gustav and its 150-mph winds bore down on Louisiana.
The Florida Keys were evacuated twice — once for Gustav and once for Ike — as the two killer storms passed west of the Keys into the Gulf. In the Carolinas, emergency officials called for voluntary evacuations as Tropical Storm Hanna blew ashore near Myrtle Beach, S.C., with near-hurricane strength winds.
In mid-September, with Ike still grinding toward Texas, it appeared the U.S. had absorbed light or glancing blows from the onslaught, while the Caribbean was crippled by deadly punches.
Gustav’s strike at the Louisiana coast tapered off in the stretch, as wind shear diminished its winds to a strong Category 2 storm with 115 mph winds. The hurricane made landfall Sept. 1 near Cocodrie, 65 miles southeast of New Orleans, then pushed inland, causing heavy damage to more populated areas.
Baton Rouge hit hard
“I think New Orleans came through in pretty good shape,” said Larry Jorgensen, executive director of the Louisiana Motorcycle & Marine Trades Association, in a brief Sept. 8 telephone interview.
“That’s all the media keeps talking about, but Baton Rouge was a disaster,” he says. “The hurricane came right up the center here.”
Jorgensen had just returned to his office in Bails Parrish, northwest of Baton Rouge, after the previous week’s evacuation. He was cleaning up flood damage on his first day back in the office, and had not had a chance to query his membership about Gustav’s impact.
But Andy Gailiano, an owner of Pirate’s Cove Marina on Grand Isle, about 20 miles east of Gustav’s landfall, says the 115-mph winds peeled back the roofs on a couple of his outbuildings. His docks and power pedestals came through OK, and Gailiano says Pirate’s Cove would be back in business as soon as power was restored. But that could be weeks away on Grand Isle.
25 inches of rain
Elsewhere around the Southeast, torrential rain was the biggest problem.
A meandering Tropical Storm Faye dumped up to 25 inches of rain in parts of Florida as it made an unprecedented four landfalls in the state — first at Key West, then Naples, Daytona Beach and Panama City — Aug.18-24. Fourteen died in the heavy flooding that followed.
The deluge filled some drought-stricken lakes, among them Lake Okeechobee and the Harris Chain of Lakes in central Florida. Two days after Faye, business still was slow, says David Ray, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of Florida.
“Ultimately I think [the lake replenishment] is going to be a good thing for boating in Florida,” he says.
“Everyone fared quite well,” says Gordon Connell, director of association services for the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, after Faye’s winds and heavy rains.
The Keys, too, were spared, but not from aggravation.
“We had Faye — a tropical depression,” says Bruce Popham, owner of the Marathon Boatyard. “It came right at us. We did a full-blown preparation for that. Gustav was too far away, but Ike — it was coming right at us.”
He prepared again, only to see the storm edge west and away, its outer bands lashing the Keys with winds gusting 50 to 60 mph. He dodged that bullet — a big one.
“It has been pretty active here the last month,” Popham says.
Some near misses
“Dodging the bullet” was the story elsewhere, as well.
“Charleston was pretty much just a rain event, which was pretty lucky,” says Suzi DuRant, executive director of the South Carolina Marine Association, after Hanna’s Sept. 6 landfall at Myrtle Beach. “We had 30-knot winds, which is less than some of the thunderstorms we get. Everybody got ready for it.”
Hanna continued up the East Coast with heavy rain and tropical storm-strength winds, at one point disrupting the women’s tennis final at the U.S. Open in New York. But marine damage was modest.
“It blew a little bit, and we got much less rain than everybody thought,” says Jack Morrow, business specialist for North Carolina Boating Industry Services. “I haven’t heard of any damage along the coast. We had a few trees down and a little bit of surge in Edenton Bay.”
“We got real lucky in Virginia,” says Mary Hosell, executive director of the Virginia Association of Marine Industries. “No one I’ve talked to has had any significant damage because we just didn’t have the high winds.”
Caribbean hit hard
The Caribbean didn’t fare nearly as well. Faye killed 23 in the Caribbean — 14 on Hispaniola alone. Gustav left another 84 dead on Hispaniola, and 11 in Jamaica, and made landfall twice in Cuba, damaging or destroying 90,000 homes in Pinar del Rio and toppling 80 high-tension electrical towers. Torrential Hanna, though its winds never exceeded 80 mph, left at least 529 dead in Haiti from flooding and mudslides. Ike caused more misery, damaging 80 percent of the homes in the Turks and Caicos, killing another 61 in Haiti and giving Cuba its second thrashing of the season. The storm forced the evacuation of 1.2 million people in Cuba and damaged 140,000 buildings. The Cuban government reported four deaths in Ike.
Ike’s eye roared over Great Inagua in southeastern Bahamas, causing concern for the 60,000 flamingos that reside in Inagua National Park. But farther north, at Coral Harbour on New Providence, Nick Wardel, who runs the Seven Seas Cruising Association station, says the northern Bahamas remained out of harm’s way.
“It’s blustery today from the east to northeast,” he said as Ike passed to the south and west. “We’re fine. Just a lot of rain.”
As Ike brushed by the Keys, forecasters were predicting it would strengthen from a Category 1 to a 2 or 3 as it tracked across the Gulf’s warm waters toward Corpus Christi, Texas, where marinas were advising boaters to move or secure their vessels in anticipation of a strike along the southwest Texas coast.
‘One of those years’
The season’s hurricane blitz was not unexpected, says William Gray, a Colorado State University hurricane prognosticator. Gray and his colleagues had predicted a “very active” hurricane year. A Sept. 2 update of CSU’s annual forecast increased the number of named storms predicted for 2008 to 17 — nine of them hurricanes, five of them major. Still expected to come then before the season’s Nov. 30 end: nine named storms and six hurricanes, three of them big ones. Gray predicted September would be even more active than August, with five named storms — four of them hurricanes and two of them major.
“I think we’ll have a lot more [this season], yes,” Gray says.
He says the warm water, low sea-surface pressure, minimal vertical wind shear, lots of moisture and strong waves of unstable air rolling off Africa into the Atlantic this season created ideal conditions for hurricane formation, and if those conditions are going to develop they usually develop around August and September.
“This is just one of those years …,” he says. “Conditions are more favorable.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.