Lessons learned from the May 3, 1999 tornado

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 14:39 GMT le 21 Mars 2007

Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado, which I reviewed earlier this month, recounts the story of the May 3, 1999 monster F5 tornado that ripped through the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City. In addition to providing an exciting fast-paced narrative of the tornado's rampage, author Nancy Mathis also brings up a number of important lessons learned from this storm, which I detail below. With two strong spring storms capable of trigging tornado outbreaks expected to move through the Midwest U.S. Tuesday and Friday next week, everyone living in Tornado Alley would be wise to pay attention to these lessons learned!

A F-4 tornado rips through Kansas, May 8, 2003. Image credit: wunderphotographer Mike Theiss.

Reasons for the low death toll in the May 3, 1999 tornado
Considering that the May 3, 1999 tornado was the strongest ever measured (302 mph winds), hit a major metropolitan area, and destroyed or damaged over 11,000 buildings, the death toll of 38 was remarkably low. It's worth reviewing the major reasons for the low death toll:

1) National Weather Service Doppler radars. The NWS just completed installation of the new NEXRAD Doppler radars nation-wide in 1998. The NEXRAD radars increased tornado warning time from 5.3 to 9.5 minutes, and roughly doubled the percentage of tornadoes warned for from 30% to 60%. Warning times were as long as 39 minutes for the May 3, 1999 tornado. Mathis notes that the number of tornado deaths in the U.S. was cut in half, to roughly 80 per year, after the NEXRAD radars became operational. It took 20 years for the new radars to get procured, thanks to cost overruns and bureaucratic wrangling. Politicians, NOAA administrators, and private contractors involved during the procurement of the next generation of tornado detection equipment should seek to avoid a similar delay. The procurement process for the NEXRAD radars was a disaster that undoubtedly cost lives.

2) A great warning system. A coordinated warning effort by NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, the local NWS office, local media, and Oklahoma local government personel worked brilliantly. The big money and training pumped into tornado preparedness paid big dividends.

3) A tornado-savvy population. Oklahomans are the most tornado-savvy people in the world. They took warnings seriously, and acted on them. A survey of those injured found that the vast majority knew of the warnings and the tornado, but just did not have a proper place for shelter.

4) Luck. The tornado leveled schools that had already dismissed classes for the day, and a shopping mall that had closed earlier. Had the tornado hit several hours earlier, or late at night when its movement could not have been shown on live TV, the death toll could have been as high as 600, according to a NOAA study.

Highway overpasses are the worst place to shelter from a tornado!
Three people died at overpasses during the May 3, 1999 tornado. The presence of the bridge acts to focus the wind, making it stronger under the bridge. Some drivers abandoned their cars on the Interstate under overpasses, blocking traffic and creating a traffic jam where people were trapped when the tornado swept over. If you're caught in your car on the road and choose to abandon the vehicle, pull off the road and seek shelter in a ditch, not under a highway overpass!

Poor home construction contributed to the deaths and injuries
Tornado fatalities were primarily from those in mobile homes, cars, and homes without shelters. The tornado revealed many homes where builders had failed (illegally) to build up to code. Enforcing existing codes and mandating stronger building codes would have reduced the death toll. This, of course, is not popular with the powerful building industry, since better construction costs more.

Tornado forecasting is still in a primitive stage
A day before the May 3 tornado outbreak, the Storm Prediction Center was only forecasting their lowest alert level for severe weather, a "Slight Risk". The computer models were highly scattered in their predictions, and made significant changes with each new run. Nothing about the outbreak was textbook. Most supercell thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes form along a warm or cold front (or a "dryline" where a sharp gradient of moisture is present). However, none of the first few supercells in the May 3 outbreak were near a front or dryline. The classic clash of warm moist Gulf air with cold, dry Canadian air that usually provides the lift needed for supercells was not present. Researchers have a huge amount of work to do before they understand what causes tornadoes like the May 3, 1999 storm.

I'll be back Friday with a new blog.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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216. Madrid
3:36 PM GMT on March 23, 2007
These links are not what I was looking for but it explains a little bit the complications of certain decisions.



I couldn't help to read about the law suit against the Corps of Engineers and this placed myself back in time when I was following Katrina before it landed in New Orleans. At the time and before the leeves broke, I read an article talking about the desperate call from the Corps of Engineers done repeatedley since many years before to pinpoint the leevies problems and how it would brake. I wish I could find it now. In that article, the prediction of what later happened was shocking. I don't work the Corps, neither I have any interested in defending them, but I do know how tied the hands of governmental engineering is, and very well. And this comment is not an insensitive view to the people that suffer so deeply during that time. I spent many days with my heart in pieces.
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215. Patrap
10:22 AM CDT on March 23, 2007
Thats the hard part Skye..you right on that 100%..
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214. Patrap
10:21 AM CDT on March 23, 2007
Remember those 16,000 plus Gulf coastal folks still in travel trailers from the 05 storms to keep their NOAA radios in working order and heed local Severe watches and warnings when given.These temp homes are susceptible to Severe Thunderstorm winds alone.Never stay in a trailer..seek shelter in the renovated home or as directed by local statements.
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213. Skyepony
3:04 PM GMT on March 23, 2007
I see the right to sue. I just think the whole thing is a shame & it looks more lose lose by the day.

Pace of rebuilding after Katrina slows
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212. Patrap
9:52 AM CDT on March 23, 2007
My personal/family claim was filed for $118,045.78..for personal loss and damages.Feb18th...and reciepts the likes that God has never seen too.
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211. Patrap
9:48 AM CDT on March 23, 2007
Best read the articles again Skye...one sues for damages incurred by their design that was below specs laid out by Congress in 1965,..The story much more involved than a urine test.LOL.One ..or Thousands cant return worrying if the same to occur..or worse.So the Corps has to bear this burden.Thats called liability by deceit.But hey,..its only people we talking about..its not like we Baghdad or something important...END rant..LOL!
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209. Patrap
9:44 AM CDT on March 23, 2007
Thats the way it..New Orleans older than most the country .They screwed the pooch on protection.Plain and simple.Galveston and many others can see the same fate.Tampa included.Only the water wouldnt remain.Only New Orleans is Below sea level.The city Proper.aka The Vieux carre.Has never flooded.Ever.Since Iberville and Bienville first founded us.A long,long time ago
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208. Skyepony
2:23 PM GMT on March 23, 2007
Patrap~ wow, if everyone gets to sue the corps for not protecting them, even though they do live below sea level in a place that is known to be sinking, eventually seems noone would want to be held responsible for keeping the water out. You sue them for all that money & where do they get funds to fix & maintain the leeves? What's the lawyer's cut? At some point the cost & risk starts not looking worth the effort.

Not to say the corps didn't screw up. I wish you'd been here before this storm hit. We reviewed the research & the plans, we knew what was gonna happen, it looked like leeve failer was emenent & was appauld the plans weren't put into action.

CB~ shear is way high
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207. Patrap
9:33 AM CDT on March 23, 2007
GOM SST 60hr forecast model..Link
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206. Patrap
9:32 AM CDT on March 23, 2007
GOES-12 Atlantic view..Low Cloud channel Link
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205. V26R
2:25 PM GMT on March 23, 2007
That looks like a Boomer (Mesoscale)complex thats dieing out Sorry CB
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203. Patrap
6:19 AM CDT on March 23, 2007

Times Picayune

Corps' employees among those making claims
By Sheila Grissett
East Jefferson bureau

The Army Corps of Engineers has faced some mighty challenges since Hurricane Katrina battered its levees, breached its floodwalls and bruised its reputation. While not as dramatic, the latest challenge is unique:

How to respond in the workplace to its employees who filed claims letting them sue the corps for Katrina damage?

The corps employs more than 1,200 people in southeast Louisiana, and Col. Richard Wagenaar, the district commander, estimates that 600 to 700 of them lost their homes or sustained significant property damage due to Katrina flooding. Its not yet known how many of the employees joined thousands of other people who recently filed Standard Form 95 asserting administrative claims for damage; the numbers are still being tallied.

But already corps lawyers and commanders are crafting a new set of regulations for those employees to follow at work even if it means a reassignment of duties until all legal issues are resolved.

The new rules are aimed at eliminating any potential conflict of interest that could result from a corps employee taking legal action alleging negligence in the corps design and construction of the federal hurricane protection system, Wagenaar said.
Conflicts of interest are generally an issue when an individuals personal interest and public duty are at odds, or when an outside observer perceives a conflict regardless whether it exists.

Cases at corps district headquarters on Leake Avenue will be decided individually, based primarily on the specifics of each corps employees normal duties, Wagenaar said.

For example, he said it is unlikely that a security guard or human resources supervisor, would face this dilemma because their duties dont directly involve creation or management of the flood defense system. It is far more likely, he said, that an engineer, a corps attorney or any number of high-level managers would have a hand in financing, designing, building, maintaining the system, or defending it in court.

In most cases, immediate supervisors will apply the new regulations to their staffs. If corps ethics lawyers decide that theres a signficant conflict of interest for senior management, Wagenaar himself will review those cases.

They might be temporarily reassigned, he said. We have very restrictive ethics rules.

In other cases, a corps spokeswoman said, the restrictions might call only for certain adjustments not an all-out job change. A budget analyst, for instance, might be required to leave meetings when the discussion turns to the subject of how to divvy limited money between hurricane protection projects.

Wagenaar said he thinks the new list of dos and donts represents a neutral position that will serve to protect both the ability of the corps to do its job and employees 1st Amendment rights to seek redress of grievances even from the very government agency that issues their paychecks.

We put out a general memo telling employees there was no prohibition against them filing a claim, he said. And now my Office of Counsel is working through a standard operating procedure that lays it all out so empoyees can understand potential restrictions.

The restrictions apply not only to the regular corps workforce in the New Orleans area but also to any contract employees brought in temporarily to help with the post-Katrina work load. We dont want to infringe on employees rights, but we also dont want to impact the districts ability to peform this mission, he said.

In a Feb. 27 in-house e-mail, corps employees were told that there is no prohibition against filing an SF-95 claim against the corps. But they were also told that the corps would need to determine whether filing the claim presents a conflict of interest for the employees position.

Wagenaar said he and others found nothing comparable in corps history to help them fashion the new guidelines. Like much else that has happened in metropolitan New Orleans as a result of Katrina, the need for such guidelines is unqiue.

Were bulding this from scratch, Wagenaar said. There is some precedent for filing (job discrimination) and sexual harassment claims.

But joining a class action lawsuit against the agency? Thats never been done before, he said. Were writing those rules right now.

Sheila Grissett can be reached at sgrissett@timespicayune.com or (504) 717-7700.

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$400 billion in claims agains corps, and that's only half those filed
By Sheila Grissett
East Jefferson bureau

Only halfway through the process, Army Corps of Engineers officials who are examining claim forms filed by tens of thousands of people over Hurricane Katrina flooding estimate the alleged damages have already passed the $400 billion mark.

The demands run the gamut, from damages for the loss of a pet to a $200 billion claim by the state of Louisiana the single largest to surface thus far. In some cases, claims were filed by residents whose property didnt flood but who seek compensation for mental or emotional stress created by multiple breaks in the federal hurricane protection system, corps officials said.

Col. Richard Wagenaar, commander of the corps New Orleans District, said his agency wont identify claimants by name to protect their privacy. But he confirmed that the $400 billion estimate so far doesnt include $78.1 billion of previously announced claims: $77 billion from the city of New Orleans, $655 million from Entergy and $460 million from the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board.

We havent found any of those claims in the envelopes opened to date, but were probably only maybe 50 percent through them, Wagenaar said this week.

Representatives of the three entities have said they submitted the federal governments Standard Form 95, preserving their right to sue the corps.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. confirmed Thursday that he signed a state claim for $200 billion in damages that Louisiana officials say they suffered as a result of the corps alleged negligence in the building, design, etc. of the MR-GO and the levee system in general.

Fotis office said the claim is intended not only to provide the federal government notice of potential damage requests, which is required as part of the administrative claims process, but also to give the corps time to investigate the claim and consider settlement before litigation.
The filings of SF-95 began slowly after a Feb. 2 ruling by U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval that the corps is not automatically immune from lawsuits involving its navigation projects.

Duvals decision breathed new life into a suit filed by WDSU television personality Norman Robinson and two couples who lived in the flooded Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. They accuse the corps of negligently building and maintaining the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

The ruling also raised the prospect that new suits would be filed, including a similar challenge involving the corps work on the 17th Street and London Avenue canals.

The trickle of SF-95s roared into a deluge with the approach of the March 1 filing deadline.

In a scene reminiscent of last-minute income tax filers who jam the post office on April 15, roads leading to the corps Leake Avenue district headquarters during the 48 hours preceding the deadline were clogged with drivers seeking to drop off their forms. To help move along the process, supervisors sent shifts of corps employees to stand alongside the streets and hold U.S. mail bins from the agencys mail room, fulfilling a requirement that the forms be treated and safeguarded as U.S. mail.

In some cases, motorists asked to borrow corps employees pens to fill out the two-page forms on the spot. Examining the forms these days, corps employees said they occasionally find one bearing only a signature, perhaps a testament to the haste with which documents were submitted. In one instance just before the filing deadline, a motorist thrust a blank form from a vehicle window, saying her attorney told her to be sure to get it filed before March 1, said a corps employee who asked not to be identified.

Wagenaar estimates it will take two to three more weeks to complete inspecting and tallying all the claims. He said the paperwork is enough to fill an 8-by-10-foot room.

Sheila Grissett can be reached at sgrissett@timespicayune.com or (504)717-7700.
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202. Skyepony
4:17 AM GMT on March 23, 2007
Maybe the trough to the east??? CMC has been building it nicely, sending it west into SFL with refreshing rains.
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4:07 AM GMT on March 23, 2007
Posted By: cyclonebuster at 2:54 AM GMT on March 23, 2007.

Nice little low to the West of the Keys!

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197. ClearH2OFla
2:49 AM GMT on March 23, 2007
Hey Hurricane 23 been a while i figure with the season fast approaching id hope back on. Any opinion on whats instore for us floridians
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196. HadesGodWyvern
2:47 AM GMT on March 23, 2007
Tropical Depression Twelve-F
14.4S 174.7E - 30 knots 998 hPa

moving west-northwest at 2 knots.

Tropical Disturbance Advisory #3 FINAL
Low level circulation center is exposed and sheared more than 60 nm northwest of deep convection resulting in rapid disintegration.

Dvorak Intensity: T1.5/2.5/S0.0/24 HRS

The potential of TD 12F to develop into a tropical cyclone is downgraded to low.
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2:28 AM GMT on March 23, 2007
Did I remember correctly that the position of the "Bermuda High" corresponds to the phase of the NAO, or is that backward? It's hard to tell what it will do though. Talk about your "cone of uncertainty":

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194. Skyepony
2:22 AM GMT on March 23, 2007
193. Tazmanian
6:13 PM PDT on March 22, 2007
i want may i want may
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192. hurricane23
9:08 PM EDT on March 22, 2007
Dr.Masters will write a blog on this sometime in early may.Hopefully it budges cause as i said before this could be a bad sign of things to come as patterns are begining to establish themselves.
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191. Tazmanian
6:04 PM PDT on March 22, 2007
the bermuda high is park right off the E coast 23
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190. hurricane23
9:00 PM EDT on March 22, 2007
Taz the bermuda high sits over the Atlantic during summer time as you may know and acts as a block that hurricanes cannot penetrate, the size and location of this system can determine where hurricanes go. A normal bermuda high often leads to hurricanes moving up the east coast and out to sea. During 2004 and 2005 , the bermuda high expanded to the south and west, which steered hurricanes into the gulf of mexico rather than up the east coast or curving out to sea. Once in the Gulf,there's no way out but to make landfall somewere.
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189. Tazmanian
5:44 PM PDT on March 22, 2007
Posted By: Tazmanian at 5:10 PM PDT on March 22, 2007.

Posted By: hurricane23 at 8:50 AM PDT on March 22, 2007.

Interesting that the high of the eastcoast has pretty much been parked there all year long so far,might it be a sign of bad things to come?

23 that is the Bermuda High that is parked right off the eastcoast it more W this year and it is stronger has well

ok her we go

ok the high you see that you been see park off the E coast is are Bermuda High i ues my paint to under line wish high is the Bermuda High the one you see in yes is the Bermuda High but the 1028mb high you see that i under line and i put NO is not the Bermuda High and has you can see the Bermuda High is march stronger and more W this year then it was last year i hop this helps


this is bad news come later on
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188. Tazmanian
5:07 PM PDT on March 22, 2007
Posted By: hurricane23 at 8:50 AM PDT on March 22, 2007.

Interesting that the high of the eastcoast has pretty much been parked there all year long so far,might it be a sign of bad things to come?

23 that is the Bermuda High that is parked right off the eastcoast it more W this year and it is stronger has well
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187. Inyo
11:52 PM GMT on March 22, 2007
summer La Nina could actually help southern California out.. it won't increase rainfall but could lead to a cool, foggy summer, which would decrease fire danger.

we actually had a small bit of rain this week but some areas got a half inch, and one isolated mountain station almost an inch. A similar storm will pass by on Tuesday.. we'll see if it does anything.
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186. Skyepony
10:52 PM GMT on March 22, 2007
23~ The ESPI went positive 3 weeks ago signaling we'd see this breif reprise from the ENSO plumit. Since then it has gone more negative than any point so far in this ENSO cooling period. Further cooling in the next month would be no suprise to me.
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185. hurricane23
6:37 PM EDT on March 22, 2007
Just wanted to pass on this new info on the GFS model getting a new upgrade and will be in full service in may.

Ernesto in south florida...

More here on upgrade.
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184. ricderr
10:28 PM GMT on March 22, 2007
actually..it's doing as the models predicted months ago.....many people chose to discount that though and go with we'd be in La Nina in days....
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183. Oreodog
5:23 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
Adrian -- don't you need the deviation from normal, not the absolute?
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182. hurricane23
6:18 PM EDT on March 22, 2007
Is nino trying to make a comback after a brief nina tendence?Its unlikely but anything is possible.

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181. Patrap
4:56 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
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180. Patrap
4:55 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
Looks Like Horsehead Nebula Odog for sure!..
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179. Patrap
4:52 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
Recent Fla & Bahama MODIS image..Link
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178. Oreodog
4:52 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
Last loop looks like a seahorse in the EGOM
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177. Oreodog
4:50 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
warming up there Pat -- be in the 80's in a month
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176. Patrap
4:49 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
60 hour GOM SST forecast animated model..Link
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175. Patrap
4:48 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
SST potential..Link
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174. hurricane23
4:56 PM EDT on March 22, 2007
ClearH2OFla check your mail!
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173. Patrap
3:16 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
Northern GOM near shore SSTs..Link
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172. Oreodog
2:44 PM CDT on March 22, 2007
Bonedog? Hey aqua, we have another member of the dog family among us!
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171. ClearH2OFla
3:42 PM EDT on March 22, 2007
Hey Hurricane23 how's it going. I havent been on in a long while. So any opinions on this years storm activity.
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170. Bonedog
2:30 PM EDT on March 22, 2007
Better Predictions for Hurricanes' Deadly Storm Surges

By Andrea Thompson
LiveScience Staff Writer
posted: 22 March 2007
02:01 pm ET

Furious winds that blow debris and topple trees tend to dominate images of hurricanes on the news, but the powerful walls of seawater these winds push ashore are often the most destructive part of the storms. Theyre also difficult to predict.

But new, more direct measurements of storm surges, detailed in the March 23 issue of Science, could help meteorologists improve forecasts and warnings and thereby reduce the damage wrought by hurricanes.

As a hurricane travels over the ocean, its strong winds push against the waters surface, causing it to pile up higher than the sea's ordinary level. As the hurricane makes landfall, the water is pushed onshore and can quickly wash many miles inland, destroying homes and businesses. This so-called storm surge accounts for the majority of hurricane deaths.

The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina was estimated to have reached heights of 24 to 28 feet along a 20-mile swath of the Gulf Coast and washed up to 12 miles inland, devastating the Mississippi coast.

Storm surge can build for hours as a hurricane approaches, but the bulk of it usually comes as a sudden rush of water that can quickly submerge low-lying coastal areas, washing away cars and trees and flooding buildings.

Storm surge predictions are usually made from estimates of surface wind speeds and turbulence under the hurricane, which tell how much drag (or the amount of push) the wind has on the waterthe more drag, the higher the surge.

But ocean spray and breaking waves can interfere with measurements, making the estimates of drag inaccurate.

Ivan improves measurements

As Hurricane Ivan moved over the northeastern Gulf of Mexico just before making landfall in September 2004, it passed over instruments sitting on the ocean floor belonging to a group of Naval Research Laboratory scientists. Amazingly, the moorings survived the hurricane and provided the scientists with valuable data from the ocean perspective of storm surge.

From measurements of the velocity of the ocean current directly under the hurricane, the scientists found that the energy transfer between wind and water reaches a maximum when a storms wind speeds reach about 72 mph (the speed around which a storm is just beginning to become a hurricane).

So for speeds less than 72 mph, the higher the wind speed, the more drag it created, but above 72 mph, the waves begin to break and cause the hurricane to lose its hold on the ocean surface.

A decreasing drag at high winds seems to be related to the sea spray, foam and bubbles from the breaking seas that would reduce the drag of the hurricane as it prowls over the ocean surface, said study team member William Teague. In effect, it would allow the hurricane to slip over the sea.

This smaller estimate of drag can be fed into computer models for more accurate predictions of storm surge, though other factors are also important for forecasts, Teague said. With more accurate forecasts, meteorologists can better warn coastal residents of the dangers they face from hurricanes, hopefully saving lives.

sounds very interesting!!!
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169. Oreodog
11:50 AM CDT on March 22, 2007
The big Leander tornado just NW of Austin a few years ago struck terrain very similar to San Antonio. It could be SA's more southerly and westerly position, which puts it a bit out of the main conveyor belt of GOM moisture.

SA gets some big bad T-storms in part because of its geography -- it is located on the Balcones Escarpment, an area where the elevations rise several hundred feet in short order. This terrain feature helps cause an upslope effect (small compared to the Rockies), but when the GOM moisture spigot is only 120 -150 miles away as the crow flies, those dew points in the 70's can lead to some juicy atmospheric mixes.
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168. Patrap
11:40 AM CDT on March 22, 2007
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167. ProgressivePulse
4:26 PM GMT on March 22, 2007
I'm not quite ready to make my call but, I do agree with you 23.
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166. hurricane23
11:41 EDT le 22 mars 2007
Interesting that the high of the eastcoast has pretty much been parked there all year long so far,might it be a sign of bad things to come?
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