Hurricane Matthew has been editing the record books in the Caribbean since late last week. Now, it threatens the Southeast U.S. coast. After last year and at the start of the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season, many stories were published about how quiet hurricane seasons have been in recent years, particularly for Florida. But this luck appears to have run out.
Hurricane Hermine was not a major hurricane last month, but it still was the first to make landfall in Florida since Wilma in 2005. Matthew is expected to come close to making landfall Thursday night or Friday, probably as a Category 4 hurricane, becoming the first “major” hurricane (having maximum sustained winds greater than 110 mph) to make landfall in the United States since Wilma.
One concern meteorologists and others have about Florida hurricanes is population growth. Since Wilma’s strike in 2005, Florida has added more than 1.7 million new residents via domestic migration and international immigration, many of whom may be unfamiliar with the power of tropical storms.
Given the lack of hurricanes in recent years, as well as the enduring myth that some parts of Florida are “safe” from hurricanes, there is certainly concern as to how seriously both new and longtime Florida residents are taking Matthew. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida has ordered 1.5 million people in coastal areas of his state to flee inland; Georgia and South Carolina officials have issued similar orders to hundreds of thousands of others. Some people are indeed stubbornly riding this one out because of the relatively quiet history on the east coast of Florida. Others have compared Matthew, a Category 4 hurricane, to a Wisconsin blizzard.
This creates a challenge for evacuation and communication of threats. Brandon Bolinski, a Federal Emergency Management Agency regional hurricane program manager, said in an email that persuading people to evacuate because of these threats when the weather is still quiet can be challenging.
“That could be the toughest part: Trying to make a call to move thousands of people when the threat of storm surge may be relatively low and skies are ‘blue,’” he said. (That may explain why Scott issued a powerful threat to skeptical residents: “This storm will kill you.”)
That said, emergency managers have plenty of lessons in the 2000s to learn from.
“Emergency managers saw a lot back in 2003-08, and many have now realized the importance of having sound plans based on good data,” Bolinski said. “We have seen better modeling (of storm surges), and that has them using creative methods for notifying (the) public of the risks they face.”
Their plans are being tested in a big way with Matthew. The hurricane’s sharp approach to the Florida coast leaves little room for error. All hurricanes are unique, and Matthew happens to be a fairly compact tropical system, where hurricane-force winds extend out only 60 miles from its center and tropical-storm-force winds extend out 160 miles from its center. When Ike struck Southeast Texas in 2008, its hurricane-force winds extended out 120 miles from the center, while tropical-storm-force winds were felt 275 miles from the center. When Sandy impacted the Northeast in 2012, its tropical-storm-force wind field extended out an incredible 485 miles from the center. Those were large storms. But with the compact nature of Hurricane Matthew, a track shift 20 miles farther offshore than is forecast would slightly reduce wind speeds and storm surge. A track 20 miles farther west than currently forecast would have devastating consequences for much of the Florida coast.
Adding to this, Matthew isn’t exactly a typical storm for this part of Florida. If Matthew’s current forecast holds, it will become the first hurricane of this intensity to rake the entire east coast of Florida north of Miami. I looked at every Category 2 or stronger hurricane to impact the Florida Peninsula since 1900. Only two took a path that looks similar to the one Matthew is forecast to take. Cleo in 1964 made landfall as a Category 2 storm north of Miami and rode up the Florida coast, just inland. David in 1979 made a couple of landfalls, traveling just offshore as it paralleled the coastline. Matthew should be quite a bit stronger than both of those storms. The strength, slow movement, and proximity to a populated coast will probably be extremely damaging.
Although Florida is a hurricane-prone state, storms of Category 4 intensity, which is Matthew’s forecast strength on approach to the coast, are not common in this part of the state. The east coast of Florida north of West Palm Beach has not seen a Category 4 hurricane as far back as reliable Florida hurricane records go (mid-1800s). You can see all Category 4 storms within about 150 miles of Orlando in the map below. So if the forecast from the National Hurricane Center holds, Matthew will be in a league of its own.
Back in 2005, the last year a major hurricane hit the United States, Facebook was in its infancy, and Twitter and Snapchat didn’t exist. There has since been an explosion in weather data and information, all of which is now available to anyone in near real time. Matthew’s every movement is being analyzed and extrapolated. And although forecasting has come a long way in the last century, hurricanes are still one of the most fickle types of weather to forecast. Given this storm’s small size, every single wobble matters for Florida, and meteorologists will be watching this with more tools and information than they’ve ever had for a major hurricane with the United States in its sights.