published Friday, August 26th, 2011

Irene’s growing threat

Predicting precisely what path a tropical storm might take and what damage it might cause is not a perfect science, but it is increasingly clear that Hurricane Irene poses what many meteorologists are calling an “extraordinary” threat to the United States, particularly coastal areas in the mid-Atlantic states and in the heavily populated urban corridor of the Northeast. Emergency officials from the Carolinas to Maine are urging residents to take precautions. Given the size and strength of the storm, heeding the warnings would be wise.

The hurricane, a category 3 with winds of 115 mph, battered the Bahamas on Thursday. Six to 10 inches rain was common there, and high winds and a storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 10-11 feet exacerbated hurricane-related damage. The storm is expected to be off the Florida coast by today and then advance steadily toward the Northeast and New England during the weekend. The impact could be devastating.

Though the precise path of Irene could still change, forecasters now believe the heart of the storm will move up the Atlantic seaboard, staying offshore until making a possible landfall sometime Sunday somewhere east of New York City. From there, they predict, it will move into New England, though in a weakened state. That’s a course that understandably frightens emergency and public safety officials. It should.

If the storm follows that path, it will expose 50 million or more residents of the coastal and New England states to potential harm. Though many people in the projected path of the storm are familiar with the capriciousness and power of hurricanes, many others are not. A major hurricane has not hit New York and New England for decades. Preparing for a storm of such magnitude, then, is something new for both emergency planners and for residents.

Preparations were under way Thursday up and down the coast. North Carolina officials, for example, ordered hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists to evacuate four coastal counties, including the Outer Banks, where the storm is expected to hit on Saturday. Most people in the affected area were either leaving or preparing to do so on Thursday, though officials publicly fretted that there were individuals determined to ride out the storm. That’s a choice that could have deadly consequences in a worst case scenario.

Officials in Virginia and Maryland were taking precautions, too. They warned residents in coastal and low-lying areas to be prepared to evacuate. The U.S. Navy ordered 27 ships berthed at Norfolk and other Virginia ports to head out to sea. The vessels, which include an aircraft carrier, destroyers and submarines, military officials say, can ride out the storm better at sea than in harbor.

In Maryland and New Jersey, officials checked and rechecked evacuation plans and repeatedly broadcast information about the storm’s current location and projected path. Boat owners and marina operators were busy pulling small craft out of the water or securing them for heavy weather. In Rhode Island, emergency officials were handing out sandbags to residents and business owners. Some might question the necessity of those efforts, but they make sense. It is better to be prepared for the worst that a hurricane — or any major weather event — might bring and not need the effort than to ignore warnings and then realize that preparation would have been the better choice.

Officials are particularly worried about the possible impact of Irene in New York, Boston and the coastal communities of New England. An especial concern is coastal flooding since Irene is expected to reach the Northeast at a time when high new moon tides could be exacerbated by wave and surge action tied to Irene. Interior flooding is a concern, too, since forecasters say heavy rains could reach as far inland as western Virginia and Maryland, central Pennsylvania and western New York.

Much of the region has been inundated in recent weeks, and the ground in many areas is so saturated that even a modest amount of rainfall could prompt rainfall. If Irene reaches the area at the intensity predicted, copious rains are expected. The resultant flooding could be disastrous. That’s just one of the possible consequences of Irene, whose winds could prove extremely destructive and, in some areas, even spawn tornadoes.

A hurricane of Irene’s predicted strength can cause extensive infrastructure damage and make restoration of essential services difficult even in areas like the Outer Banks, where disaster plans and building codes are created with powerful and frequent hurricanes in mind. In places where hurricanes are rare — the centers of only five have passed within 75 miles of New York City since 1851 — the lack of practice and experience and the large numbers of people in relatively small areas could pose problems. To their credit, officials in the region have worked hard to prepare and execute plans and to keep the public informed.

For the moment, residents in Irene’s projected path and adjacent areas can only watch, wait and heed instructions from officials about the best ways and the best places to seek protection from the storm. Anything less needlessly exposes one to considerable danger.

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