Hurricane Irma came to visit the other day. Unbidden and unwelcome, she stomped up from the south through 200 miles of the sandbar I call home, came right up to our door, knocked with great vigor, and moved on to north.
As of this writing I have no electricity, no Internet connection, very spotty cell phone coverage, a boil water notice, and a mandatory curfew.
This week is far from normal. But that’s not what we pilot types should be thinking about right now. A better use of our time and intellect would be to take a look at the various plots projected for Hurricane Irma and then contrast those projections with the path the storm actually took.
Does it really matter if the projections are off by a hundred miles or so? Really? Yes. Yes, it does.
Thank goodness, most readers of General Aviation News will never face a hurricane head on. A storm of this size and ferocity is nothing to sneeze at.
Combine that meteorological nastiness with a dark night, a significant dose of sleep deprivation, and the loss of all modern conveniences, and you’re dealing with an industrial strength stress test. It ain’t fun, let me tell you.
Fortunately, we have satellite imagery, NOAA aircraft that fly into the storm to measure its might with great accuracy, and computer generated models to indicate where the storm might go.
Note: The most important piece of information to remember is the models tell us where the storm might go. The operative term being “might.” Nobody knows where it will go. But that doesn’t stop the news from broadcasting the latest track projections.Here’s the problem. Like pilots who read a weather forecast and say, “Well, that’s what’s going to happen. I guess we’re good to go,” those who are less experienced in hurricane survival don’t realize that a forecast track is nothing more than an educated guess.
And as we all know, an educated guess is no more a guarantee than your dimmest relative’s best guess.
We’re throwing darts at maps and pretending the information they give us is accurate and dependable. It’s not. Not for a hurricane, not for your next flight.
The forecast is a valuable tool that we should all avail ourselves of, but we’d be wise to take that forecast with a grain of salt. In all cases at all times, it’s just a best guess scenario.
Let me give you an actual scenario that illustrates why this matters.
My sister recently relocated to Bonita Springs, Florida. She’s got a gorgeous home in a beautiful neighborhood located barely two miles from the Gulf of Mexico, just north of the coastal city of Naples.
Concerned about the approaching storm, she evacuated, heading for our historic family home just south of Jacksonville. That’s roughly 200 miles north and quite a bit east of where she lives. That’s a good move. If nothing else, it got her off the peninsula to a place that would allow for more time to make a decision about moving farther north, or west.
The peninsula is a stressful place to be during a hurricane. Much like an island, there’s really no place to go. If you stay, you’re pretty much stuck. At some point you’re committed to riding the storm out no matter what happens.
Here’s where having excessive trust in the forecast gets dicey.
I talked to my sister by phone 24 hours before the storm was expected to make landfall. A new storm track made the news, this one suggesting the storm would come ashore in Miami, then move up the east coast, staying just offshore for much of the journey.
My sister gave great credence to this projected path and so she announced she was going back home, “Since the storm has moved so far east.”
This led to a serious conversation that had her seeking the comfort of home, while I insisted that driving south down the peninsula while literally a million people or more headed north, was not her best plan of action.
A hurricane is the most powerful meteorological force on the planet. It will go where it will go. The weatherman’s best guess has no bearing on its actual path.
Of equal importance, it is very difficult — if not impossible — to find gasoline as the storm approaches. Combine that with the possibility of a mechanical breakdown, a blocked road, flooding, or a hundred other possible impediments and it’s not all that difficult to make a case for staying put or heading farther north.
This is the ground-pounder’s equivalent of get-home-itis. In the air or on the street, we want to go where we feel safe. In some cases the place we feel we’ll be safe is actually the antithesis of actually being safe.
Thankfully my sister chose to play it very safe. She went to Birmingham, Alabama, well out of the worst weather.
As for Bonita Springs, her original preferred destination: It got hammered. The projected path broadcast on the news was way, way off. It didn’t come ashore in Miami. It pounded the Keys, then came ashore south of Naples, and whipped that area with winds reported to be as high as 142 mph.
We can all learn from this week’s weather extravaganza, whether you were here for the big show or a thousand miles away. A forecast is just a guess. It’s a valuable piece of information, but we shouldn’t be overly willing to bet our lives or our safety on the forecast alone.
And when a line appears to show the track of the coming storm, or the GPS course that takes us direct-to our destination, let’s at least be aware there may be extenuating circumstances that make that course unwise or impossible.
Always have an alternate plan of action. It pays off now and then, and when it does, the dividends are absolutely worth the effort you expended making that plan, and committing to it when the situation warranted it.