Florida in dread of Arthur's deadly whisper

The start of the annual hurricane season along the east coast is a tense time for millions of Americans, writes Phil Davison

Miami - Arthur. The name sounds harmless enough, hardly that of a mass killer and home-wrecker. But then again, that's what they said about Andrew.

Down the eastern US seaboard and on the Caribbean islands, everybody is waiting for Arthur. That is the name assigned in advance to the first tropical storm of the 1996 Atlantic hurricane season, which began on Saturday and lasts until November.

He may not yet even be a whisper of wind off north-west Africa and he may grow to nothing more than a tropical storm with 40mph gales. On the other hand, he might just blossom into a hurricane with winds of 130mph, like Andrew, the scourge of southern Florida in 1992.

Last year's first hurricane of the season, Allison, was the earliest in recorded history, battering Florida in the first week of June.

Once Arthur has been and gone, he will be followed by a "female" storm, Bertha, according to a pre-agreed alphabetic list of alternating men's and women's names. Next will be Cesar, then Dolly, Edouard, Fran, Gustav, Hortense, Isidore, Josephine, Kyle, Lili, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paloma, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky and Wilfred. The letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are always left out. The names are meant to be "politically correct," reflecting the cultural diversity of the eastern US and Caribbean.

(Tropical storms were all named after women for the quarter century until 1978, the height of the women's liberation movement, when US weatherpersons bowed to pressure and agreed to use alternating men's names).

After the second-worst storm season in history last year - with 19 tropical storms, 11 of which became hurricanes - meteorologists in the US and the Caribbean are bracing for another bad year. Some fear global warming and other climatological changes could produce more and stronger hurricanes and, with them, deadly tornadoes, wave surges and the flooding of highly populated beach areas.

A report by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) predicted that global warming would bring more powerful hurricanes, driving larger surges of water and raising the Atlantic Ocean by six inches over the next 30 years. That may not sound like much but it could prove catastrophic in low-lying US coastal areas where more and more people - often elderly - are taking up residence.

"Global warming is real and is already having an effect," a geologist, Harold Wanless, told the Miami Herald newspaper. "We are at the beginning of a catastrophic revolution for low-lying and coastal areas."

The busy city of Miami Beach is little more than a long sandbar connected to mainland Miami by causeways. Yet, despite Florida's vulnerability and track record, authorities have serious problems convincing residents to prepare.

In a recent poll, almost 60 per cent of Florida residents said they would not evacuate in the face of a major hurricane.

During evacuation warnings last year, surfers took to the waves and you could even see people trying, with some difficulty, to light barbecues on the beach.

In the National Hurricane Centre, outside Miami on the edge of the famous Everglades swamps, some 80 meteorologists are preparing for the onslaught. Whatever happens, they are in the best place. The concrete, one-storey centre was built to withstand not only the worst hurricanes but even missiles, since it is designed to be a bunker and nerve centre in the event of any disaster.

Inside is a generator and fuel and food supplies for its staff for 10 days.

When Arthur and successive storms approach, Dr Bob Burpee, the centre's director, will again become a familiar face in the US and, via CNN, around the world.

Beside him will be a large-screen monitor showing an image of a cartwheeling blob in the Atlantic.

That image is relayed from two geostationary satellites, meaning they are in orbit at the same speed and direction as the Earth, so that their images appear to be taken from a stationary point.

Back-up to the satellite images comes from the so-called "Storm Trackers," an intrepid group of US air force personnel and scientists who fly planes into hurricanes to get vital information. Crew members are strapped into special harnesses like motor racing drivers while the hurricane tosses their plane up, down and sideways.

"You get the crap kicked out of you and you think you're going to meet your maker," said John Pavone, the man in charge of the "Storm Trackers".

This season, the trackers took possession of a new Gulfstream jet which will allow them to fly through the "head" of hurricanes, typically at a height of around 40,000ft.

Until now, the Air Force's converted WC-130 Hercules transport planes and the scientists' Orion turboprops have been able to fly at only half that height.

The higher view, say the experts, will allow them to improve by around 20 per cent the accuracy of their predictions as to where a hurricane will hit land. Such information can be vital for saving lives.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat