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The Psychology of Hurricanes

Squalls and showers do not a hurricane make, so beware the hype you'll be hearing over the airwaves this hurricane season says the author, an experienced mariner and hurricane survivor.
You could almost hear the relief in the broadcaster's voice yesterday morning. Finally, those loafing meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center were taking a good hard look at a persistent low-pressure system and imbedded shower activity in the Gulf of Mexico. The broadcaster confidently predicted that a tropical depression was likely to be announced as of today, July 10, 2002. Once you have a depression, with a number, a position, and projected track, then anything is possible. A slight bit of strengthening results in a naming ceremony and then presto—you have headlines and a captive, anxiety-ridden audience. A hurricane is a made-for-television event if there ever was one; it's like a football game that goes on for days with plenty of time for commercials and expert analyses.

Although we sailors in Florida have been inundated by rain this summer, recording record levels all across the southern portion of the state, that's not the weather story our local media wants to report. There isn't much drama when the rainy season kicks in with a vengeance. Without major rivers to overflow, Texas-style flooding seems unlikely on our low-slung peninsula, which is already virtually under water that is often called the river of grass. TV camera crews are limited to showing images of lightning strikes over the Everglades or more prosaically, of cars with their wipers whipping, plodding slowly through rain-induced traffic jams on I-95.

Unfortunately for local news organizations, we are officially 40 days into the Atlantic hurricane season without so much as a Tropical Storm Arthur to fret about. As I write this, there is not a single pair of coordinates plotted on the hurricane-tracking chart that sits tacked on the wall in my kid's bedroom.

Ten years ago, one of the worst storms on recordHurricane Andrewlived up to its hype, hitting South Florida with a vengeance.

According to the latest update from the NHC, that low-pressure area located approximately 270 miles southeast of New Orleans has now become a little better organized. Slow development is possible, and an Air Force Reserve Reconnaissance Aircraft is scheduled to investigate the system tomorrow, if necessary. Elsewhere, the report continues, tropical storm formation is not expected through Thursday. Oh the dreaded words, I can hear the collective groans at the television stations across the South Florida.

Of course by the time you read this piece, Arthur could be alive and kicking and sailors all along the Alabama, Mississippi and Texas Gulf Coasts will be buying extra fenders and mooring lines and tuning into The Weather Channel 50 minutes past every hour for the latest updates. And if he tacks to the southeast instead, I'll be doing the same. But, until then, is it worth the stress worrying about it? Not that you really have much of a choice that is, unless you completely ignore most media sources. I rarely watch the late local news and only occasionally tune in The Weather Channel. Yet, even with my limited viewing habits, already this summer I have witnessed countless clips of wind-whipped palm trees, crashing surf, toppling piers, collapsing beach houses, and sailboats bucking at their moorings that serve as graphic promos for this year's anticipated hurricane coverage. Every station promises to be my No. 1 source, "when a killer hurricane stalks South Florida."

"While many boats were smashed beyond recognition, one, an old Pearson 26, sat perfectly upright on its keel, its mast standing tall, leaning against a street light on the corner of US 1 and 27th avenue, eight blocks from the ocean!"

Don't get me wrong, I have a healthy, well-earned fear of tropical revolving storms and certainly don't want to jinx myself. I sailed through the eye of Hurricane Bob in 1991 and have been strafed by Hurricanes Arlene, Floyd, Grace, and Mitch over the years. While encountering a hurricane at sea is terrifying, a feeling I'll describe a bit later, the sheer power of these mean spirited storms is most apparent at the ill-fated point where they make landfall.

I'll never forget walking through the destruction and debris near Dinner Key Marina in the Coconut Grove district of Miami the day after Hurricane Andrew made a mockery of stout pilings and concrete docks 10 years ago this August. I was also struck by the randomness of Andrew's wrath. While many boats were smashed beyond recognition, one, an old Pearson 26, was standing perfectly upright on its keel, its mast standing tall, leaning against a street light on the corner of US 1 and 27th Avenue—eight blocks from the ocean! That must have been a hell of a ride on the storm surge.

Still, for every Andrew, there are hundreds of tropical storms that form, steer their spiraling courses and die at sea or even make a sputtering landfall without causing widespread damage. But the thought of the next big one striking near our homes and boats is an emotional minefield. Hurricanes are stalkers. From the moment a wayward sand storm veers off the African coast its course and surface pressure are carefully monitored and dutifully reported to the public. A drop in barometric pressure is like a spike in the cholesterol count of a heart patient, anxiety mounts and you feel certain the storm has set its sights on you. For a country whose residents are supposed to be woeful in their knowledge of geography, I'll bet more Americans deal with the concept of latitude and longitude in the summer and fall than any other population on earth. We've become obsessed by hurricanes and I'm not sure it's healthy.

Encountering a hurricane at sea is quite a different matter, as the author and his crew discovered in the fall of 2001.
Last October I delivered a Hylas 46 from Connecticut to Florida. The day before I left I chatted on the phone with my wife's 83-year grandmother in Oregon. "You do know about the tropical wave that just formed near the Cape Verde Islands," she asked in a worried tone, "maybe you should cancel the trip." I was impressed the old girl knew where the Cape Verde Islands were. "It's okay Grandma," I reassured her, it may not turn into anything and its thousands of miles away from here, don't worry about it." She wasn't buying it, and said, "I always worry about you Floridians during hurricane season."

Psychologists in South Florida continue to deal with people suffering from post Andrew stress disorder ten years later. A CNN report in 1999 examined the stress and anxiety associated with waiting for a hurricane to hit. Unlike other natural disasters that occur suddenly, hurricanes take their time, taunting and teasing before striking. Feelings of anxiety build and even if a storm misses, the same stresses are rekindled every time hype and buildup begin. According to experts these symptoms are renewed with each new hurricane season. I am not suggesting that the media stop reporting on tropical storms until they're imminent threats, that would be irresponsible. I am suggesting a more rational, informed approach to what the actual threat is instead of the blatant scare mongering that currently takes place. Once abject fear sets in everything changes.

In 1991 I was the skipper of Southern Light, a Hylas 44 sloop, conducting a training passage from the Virgin Islands to Nassau, Bahamas. My crew consisted of five inexperienced but game sailors paying for the opportunity to splash some blue water on their resumes. Two days out of Nassau the dawn that greeted us was like being trapped under a giant University of Alabama football helmet—the sky was a dome of crimson. "Is there any truth to that old saying, ‘red sky in the morning, sailors take warning,'" one of the crew asked. The concerned look on my face was answer enough. The barometer was plunging and the wind and seas were picking up rapidly. Soon it was howling.

"The collective moods aboard dropped faster than the barometer. The same sailors that just moments before were cheerful, became dreadfully serious, and in a couple of cases, downright terrified."
We were coping beautifully. The Hylas 44 is a nimble Frers design and solidly constructed. We chose a strategy of fore reaching into the wind with just a sliver of the roller-furled genny unveiled. This tactic allowed us to maintain steerage and sea room and we rode the building seas comfortably. The crew was actually enjoying the opportunity to gain some heavy weather experience, enjoying it that is, until we spoke to a nearby freighter on the VHF.

"You're in the middle of a hurricane," the Captain told us, "the hurricane center upgraded it this morning, it's named Bob and moving fast." He gave me Bob's coordinates and predicted track and then in a somber tone, wished us ‘god speed.' The collective moods aboard dropped faster than the barometer. The same sailors that just moments before were cheerfully gathered in the cockpit became dreadfully serious, and in a couple of cases, downright terrified.

After plotting Bob's position, which was just about right on top of us, I tried to reassure the crew. Because the storm had formed quickly, the seas were manageable and hadn't developed into the monster seas that are normally associated with 70-knot winds. "In a good sea boat," I told the crew, "a storm, even a hurricane can be an enlightening experience." I said this quietly hoping Neptune wouldn't overhear my hubris. "In a storm you have to confront your fears head on and take an active role in assuring your survival, you're not trainees anymore, you're sailors." I should have used a different word, the mood became even more somber, before my stupid little pep talk they might have been scared, but nobody had assumed that they might not survive. When I went below a few hours later I noticed the off watch snatching furtive glances at pictures of loved ones, stowaways smuggled aboard for just such an occasion.

After Hurricane Bob made landfall in the northeast in late 2001, the consequences were felt along a large expanse of the New England coastline.
Luckily Bob was in a hurry and saved his destructive energy for New England where he battered the shoreline from Newport to Maine. We were pelted by wind-driven rain that felt like it would puncture your foul-weather gear, but we were never seriously threatened as the hurricane center roared right over as. A couple of the crew rose above their fears and embraced the perverse beauty of a really pissed off ocean. Other's didn't.

When the storm passed, the weather improved dramatically. Soon we were under full sail and joking about the storm. Still, we were not able to replicate the good cheer and light-hearted camaraderie that we had aboard before our encounter with Bob. If we hadn't known that the storm was a hurricane, would the experience have been different? I think so. The destructive power of a named storm has been etched into all of our psyches.

When a storm, even a hurricane passes at sea, the restorative powers of the ocean are quick to wipe away any reminders of the tempest that just days before made your life hell. On land, however, it is a different story, and we live with visible effects long after the storm has moved inland and dissipated. Anger and resentment linger. Four years after the second most destructive hurricane in the western hemisphere blasted much of Honduras, new mothers in that country still avoid the name Mitch, or any Spanish derivative, like the plague. Maybe that's the problem, this idea of personalizing hurricanes with names. It would be a lot harder to hype a storm if it was called, well, simply called a storm. When we finally tied up at Nassau Yacht Haven on that fated trip, the guy hawking "I Survived Hurricane Bob" T-shirts didn't have much luck with our crew.

Suggested Reading:

Beware October 20 by Michael Carr

The Science of Hurricanes by Michael Carr

Hurricane Watch by Joy Smith

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John Kretschmer is offline  
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