Suggestions for hurricane-oil spill coverage

By Jack Williams ©2015

With Hurricane Alex no longer a threat to the people and vessels working to stop and clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, reporters, newscasters, editors, and other news people can take a breather and think about ways to improve coverage when the next hurricane moves into  the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the things to think a lot more about is how a Gulf hurricane could affect the clean up.

Reporters Rick Jervis and Donna Leinwand did a great first installment of this story with their “A region’s new fear: An oily hurricane,” published online by USA TODAY on June 27.

In the story they qyote Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen as saying that “Nearly 3,000 barges, 430 skimmers and 2,700 other vessels — including Coast Guard command and control boats — would have to be moved to secure ports.”

The guided missile frigate USS Elrod leaves its pier in Norfolk on Sept. 16, 2003 to avoid Hurricane Isabel before the storm began to affect the area. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Michael Sandberg.

I wonder where these safe harbors would be. How many places would there be around the Gulf considering that a hurricane would probably seriously threaten more than one port?

The reaction of the U.S. Navy to hurricanes that threaten ships in port, such as at the Norfolk, Va., Naval Station, raises this question. In September 2003 the Navy ordered 40 ships based in the Hampton Roads (Va) area to go to sea when Hurricane Isabel looked like it would hit  Norfolk.

“Navy vessels can better weather a storm of hurricane magnitude when they are underway. A greater potential for damage exists when a ship is moored, where high winds and storm surges could act to cause damage to both the ship and the pier,” the Navy said on its Web site.

I’m  sure this would be true of the larger ships working on the oil spill.

While Navy ships, or other large ships, can survive strong storms at sea, those aboard obviously prefer to sail as far away from a storm as possible. How far away would ships be able to go in the Gulf? How long would this take?  Would the ships involved with the oil spill hold up in storm wind and waves as well as Navy ships?

Along the Gulf Coast and parts of the East Coast owners of smaller fishing boats and pleasure boats have a tradition of heading for a “hurricane hole”–far enough up a creek or bayou to avoid the worst. But, this is no guarantee the craft will survive the storm. Has anyone tried to estimate what a Category 3 or stronger hurricane might do to the many small craft involved in the clean up.

In their story Jervis and  Leinwand describe the need to evacuate all of those working on the cleanup in addition to residents if a storm threatens. The extra people and equipment involved in the cleanup will slow down evacuations.

This part of the story certainly could be expanded, probably with some on-the-scene reporting from places along the Coast from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle with plenty of experience with evacuations.

The really tricky story to report that will arise from the need for ships and thousands of people to move out of the way is that they will have to begin moving when the odds relatively low that a hurricane will hit any particular part of the Gulf Coast.

After it’s all over a lot of people will have evacuated and ships moved far away that would have been safe if they had stayed. This is a fact of hurricanes. But, no one had any way of knowing this when the evacuations had to begin to get everyone out before it’s too late.

I”m sure that people aren’t going to be satisfied with the answer that Neil Frank, who was director of the National Hurricane Center from 1974 to 1987, told me in the early 1980s he would be tempted to give to someone who complained about an evacuation that turned out not to be necessary:  “I don’t want to listen to your complaints about coming back and finding  your house hasn’t been washed away.”

Evacuations that turn out to be “unnecessary” are a fact of life along the U.S. Gulf and East coasts.

Craig Fulgate. FEMA photo, Bill Koplitz

I suspect Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would have good points to make about this based on his service as director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management from 2001 until moving to FEMA in 2009.

An important, but  somewhat subtle, point, reporters could try to make is that hurricane forecasts are probabilistic and this shouldn’t be forgotten during the day-to-day reporting of a storm. Hurricane forecasts give odds, which might not sound particularly high until the storm is so close that it’s too late to evacuate from most places along the coast. Evacuations may have to begin when the odds of  hurricane-force (74 mph or stronger) winds are less than 50%.

As it happened Alex was a mostly well-behaved storm during most of its life. This meant that the broadcasters I heard saying that Alex would miss the oil spill turned out to be correct. But, they could have been wrong. In fact, during a brief period forecasters thought there was some chance that Alex could hit the oil spill area.

Forecasts of hurricane paths have greatly improved in the last couple of decades, but as any hurricane forecaster or scientist would tell you, they are not perfect.

Anyone who’s reporting on a tropical storm or a hurricane can’t go wrong by using wording such as “Forecasters expect Hurricane Bonnie to turn away from the U.S. Coast” instead of saying it “will turn away from the U.S. Coast.” In fact, by using maps and text from the National Hurricane Center, a reporter could give the odds of hurricane winds hitting any  particular location.

A June 25 Associated Press story, published by USA TODAY online illustrates a good way to handle hurricane forecasts: “For the time being, the storm appears likely to miss the oil-slicked region, but meteorologists warned that a storm’s track can quickly change.”

My only quibble is that this was in the 17h paragraph of a a 19-paragraph story. In the second paragraph the story did say: “Its route was still well clear of the massive oil spill in the Gulf.” If I had been editing the story I would have moved the sentence about the forecast to immediately after the “well clear” sentence since the storm’s likely path was probably of more interest to most readers than what Alex did as it crossed Mexico

Links to the National Hurricane Center and other reliable sources of hurricane information are available on my Weather Links: Hurricanes page. This page also has information on hurricane science that can help you understand terms such as “eyewall replacement cycle” that forecasters use.

In addition to helping you find solid information about hurricanes, my page includes a link to an extended online discussion of oil and hurricanes by Dr. Jeff Masters of The Weather Underground Web site. In fact, Ferrell probably could have used some of the information in Masters’ piece for his blog.

Masters’ blog includes information on how storms have affected Gulf of Mexico oil spills in the past and the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. (An extratropical cyclone, not a hurricane, complicated the Alaskan response.)

I can also help with questions about hurricanes. Send them to me via the Ask Jack a Question form on this Web site.

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