Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Calm Before the Storm

A Quick Note: We're anxiously awaiting the delivery of our new camera and the ability to take and post current photos of My Florida Backyard. In the meantime, here's some hurricane information that might help non-locals understand what storm season is like here in Tampa.

September is considered to be the most active month for hurricanes. Although the season begins June 1, the activity generally doesn't pick up until August, and September brings the peak. We here in My Florida Backyard are vigilant during hurricane season, but (contrary to what our northern friends and relatives seem to think) don't live every day in constant terror. If you're interested in meteorology (and here in MFB, we're interested in a little bit of everything), hurricane season can be fascinating.

What Makes a Hurricane Tick?
If you're interested in the all the nitty gritty details, check out Wikipedia's entry on Tropical Cyclones. For some basic info, read on.

Here are the basic hurricane ingredients*:
  • Water temperatures of at least 26.5 °C (79.7 °F) down to a depth of at least 50 m (160 ft)
  • High amount of moisture in the atmosphere
  • Low amount of wind shear
  • Pre-existing system of disturbed weather
In the Atlantic, our "pre-existing systems" generally consist of tropical waves coming off the west coast of Africa, an offshoot of the monsoon season. These waves travel across the Atlantic, strengthening or weaking depending on the SST (sea surface temperature), wind shear, and other weather systems they encounter. There are plenty of great sites that allow you to follow these "disturbed weather systems" right off of Africa - our favorite is Weather Underground and Dr. Jeff Masters' Wunder Blog.

Of course, not all tropical systems come all the way from Africa. Just a few weeks ago, Tropical Storm Claudette formed right off the coast of St. Petersburg and traveled up to the Panhandle. Generally, the less time a system has to form over water, the better, in terms of intensity. If Claudette had had more time, for instance, she would very likely have made it to hurricane status.

Now That's What I Call Turbulence!
One of the most fascinating aspects of hurricane research has to be the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters. Since 1944, the
53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron has been flying right into the heart of tropical systems to gather vital storm information. This info helps meteorologists understand more about the mechanics of the storms, and aids in making predictions about storm strength and possible effects.

To learn more, click on over to their website.

Tampa Is Statistically Lower-Risk
Before moving to FL in 2006, we did some pretty extensive research about hurricane risk. Florida's hurricane history is well-known; when you're surrounded by water on three sides, hurricanes have lot of angles from which to hit you.

We discovered that Tampa, interestingly enough, actually has a fairly low risk compared to the rest of the state. According to, Tampa stands about a 1 in 25 chance of taking a direct hit from a tropical system, compared to 1 in 6 in Miami or 1 in 8 in Pensacola.

Another consideration: although we love the beach, we chose not to live too close to the coast. The biggest danger from a hurricane is generally considered to be storm surge. We consulted storm surge and evacuation zone maps to determine the safest places to live in the bay area. We're of course at risk from wind, heavy rains, tornados, and other nasty hurricane features, but they don't scare us quite as much as storm surge.

Historically Speaking...
Tampa's last "direct hit" was the 1921 "No Name" storm, also called the "Tarpon Springs" storm. This storm destroyed the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs (the industry never truly recovered). The hurricane killed 10 people and caused $10 million in damage (that's 1921 dollars, folks).

It Only Takes One...
Historically, Tampa may have been "lucky", but that doesn't mean we're off the hook. A single major hurricane (category 3 or higher) could do significant damage in the Bay area. The 2009 season has been slow so far, but we're just entering the season for strong storms that take aim right at our area. One positive aspect of a hurricane is that, unlike a midwest tornado, you get plenty of warning when one approaches. So, we prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and enjoy My Florida Backyard as it thrives in the rainy season!

*When you move to hurricane country, you learn lots of great new terms like wind shear, spaghetti model, cone of uncertainty, and so on. If these terms are new to you, check the Bay News 9 Hurricane Glossary.

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