Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hurricane Rain

Over the past two weeks, South Carolina has been visited by two early season tropical storms that formed off our coast. These storms did little damage both made landfall in Florida near my hometown of Jacksonville, FL but the one last week then turned northeast crossing Georgia and South Carolina before re-entering the Atlantic. During my time working at the Department of Natural Resources in the early 90s, I learned that is the path most storms take when they strike the coast of my adopted state. Storms approaching the east coast of the Carolinas typically turn northeast at the last minute and strike near Wilmington, North Carolina or somewhere on the Outer Banks. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was the most notable exception to that rule.

Left: Hurricane Rain on my Windshield Last Tuesday, I saw something that struck a memory and had not seen in a long while. Tropical Storm Beryl was crossing the Savannah River into SC from Northeast Georgia and Columbia was feeling the influence in the form of rain bands. For lunch that day, I met some friends some driving distance from my office. As we were walking out to our cars, a fine mist-like drizzle began. Pretty soon the drops came down much faster, driven by a Northeast wind. Faster and faster they came until the air was filled with tiny raindrops. The windshield of the car was covered and the volume of the rain was so great that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. Normal raindrops seem to get bigger as the volume of the rain increases but not this kind of rain. It was almost as if there was no space for the air between the drops, but the drops remained as fine as a mist.

Left: Hurricane Donna's Path (Courtesy NOAA) That made me flash back to my childhood in Jacksonville. I think the year was 1960, and the storm was Hurricane Donna. Donna formed off the coast of Africa, tracked across the Atlantic then came into South Florida near Miami and traveled up the west coast of the state before crossing over and exiting back into the Atlantic near Jacksonville. I remember lots of wind, power outages and excitement as we all prepared for the storm. I remember the adults in the family conferring about the storm and discussing what was happening. What I remember mostly was the rain, the same kind of rain that I saw last Tuesday. One of my uncles stood on the back porch of my house and proclaimed that this was a “Hurricane Rain.” Mom responded from the kitchen that it was a “Northeaster Rain.” My uncle nodded his head and said “Yup, that too!” It has been said that the Inuit People have many words for snow. Recently that has been debunked as an urban myth. What they do have is a number of suffixes to their root word for snow. So I am not surprised that Floridians who see more than their share of hurricanes have many descriptions for the rain that we see around hurricanes.

Left: Departing Houston during TS Erin It seems to me that Tropical Storms produce more rain in a given locations than hurricanes do. I remember being caught in a traffic jam on San Filipe Street in Houston in 2007 when tropical storm Erin came ashore near Corpus Christi. That put Houston in the Northeast quadrant of the storm, typically the worst place to be. The rain was the same as last Tuesday, only there was much more of it. I was trying to get to the airport to fly home to Columbia when suddenly I realized the water was overflowing the curbs of the street and rising rapidly. Like some other drivers, I drove onto the lawn of the bank building that was next to us and found an escape route to higher ground that got me to the elevated interstate and then to the airport in time to catch my plane. But it was a close thing, just as my front wheels crossed the curb, my back wheels lost traction. It was a lucky thing for me that I was driving a front wheel drive or I could have wound up floating down the street like some of the others.

So as I drove back to the office, sometimes as slow as 40 miles per hour on the interstate in the blinding Hurricane Rain, I thought, here it is, after all this time not much has changed. Oh MY!

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