Volume XI, Issue 38 ~ September 18-24, 2003

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Bay Reflections

Waiting for Isabel
by Dick Wilson

Once again I find myself sitting and waiting ever so patiently for a visitor who may or may not show up. It seems I’ve been doing this most of my life. As I write these words the visitor, a hurricane named Isabel, is doing her counterclockwise rotating dance just north of Cuba.

If you’re reading these words during or after Isabel’s visit here, you may have been blasted with some of the strongest winds seen here in living memory. On the other hand, she may have skipped on by. Most likely, she will have done something in between.

That’s the thing about hurricanes: You can never be sure what they’re going to do or where they’re going.

They’re born in the warm waters of the eastern Atlantic Ocean, usually near the Cape Verde Islands, off northwest Africa. Fueled by warm surface water and a predisposition to spin in a counterclockwise direction, a weather system develops and moves west. At first, it’s classified as a tropical disturbance: nothing spectacular, just blustery weather, basically your everyday tropical rainstorm.

As the system continues westward, it increases in intensity as it picks up more water vapor through evaporation. If the storm intensifies into a tropical depression, it’s noisy, but it brings winds less than 23mph. It’s at this point that people start paying attention, though, because tropical depressions can grow into tropical storms and maybe hurricanes. Most never grow beyond the tropical storm stage.

Now your tropical storm, with winds between 24 and 74mph, can cause significant damage, but usually the cost is measured in dollars, not lives. People in areas hit by tropical storms may suffer because of uprooted trees and other such wind damage, but rarely is there loss of life or catastrophic flooding.

Hurricanes are a different story. Serious hurricanes are not taken lightly by those who have been through them. Winds of 74mph may sound comparatively small in terms of hurricane strength, but you may be sure that you won’t be out puttering in the garden while hurricane-force winds are blowing. Any storm classified at hurricane strength is awesome.

Hurricanes are classified into categories according to their strengths as measured under the so-called Saffir/Simpson Scale: Category 1, 74–93mph winds; Category 2, 94–110mph winds; Category 3, 111–134 mph winds; Category 4, 135–154 mph winds; Category 5, 155mph winds or higher.

Our potential visitor, Isabel, was Category 5, but she has now dropped to Category 2. She is still deserving of respect, and she may well regain some or all of her previous strength.

I lived for five years in Guam, a place known for frequent hurricanes (except that they call them typhoons in the Pacific). I suffered through three direct hits by “minor” (less than Category 3) storms while living there. In 2002, I visited Guam for only three days and was stuck in a Category 3 storm (Typhoon Chataan) that hit Guam head-on. I sincerely pray (Isabel, are you listening?) that Chataan was my last experience with hurricanes or typhoons of any category.

Because of geography and complex physics, we are bound to have these visitors now and then. Since biblical days, Bay Country has probably been hit hundreds of times by hurricanes or their remnants. In spite of our tradition of Maryland hospitality, however, we don’t need to welcome them with open arms. Isabel, go away! But if you must visit, please treat us gently.


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Last updated September 18, 2003 @ 2:30am