“Hurricane!!” Just a word to me, just a West Indies word meaning “big wind.” Sure, I had seen pictures on television, usually of trees bending down and stop signs undulating in the wind (what is it about dancing stop signs that always seems to capture the imagination of cameramen?) I had even heard the stories brought back from the Virgin Islands by my brother, Philip, and other friends, Karl Millen, Bob Markle and Lee Martin, but they had only caught “glancing blows” (pardon the pun) from Hurricanes David and Frederic while on land and many years ago. My vicarious experiences with hurricanes had hardly prepared me for the real thing. That gap in my personal knowledge was about to be remedied times three.
I knew that Truelove was in an area that was susceptible to hurricanes from time-to-time. And I knew that the hurricane season runs officially from June 1 until November 30 each year, with the greatest number of hurricanes occurring in August, September, and early October. Still, I had the impression that the chances of any individual hurricane actually coming ashore within a range that could cause a problem for Truelove were pretty small. Ah, the learning curve when one acquires a sailboat on the Atlantic Coast – so steep as to be almost vertical for a neophyte like me. It turns out that North Carolina sticks out into the Gulf Stream just right to catch more than its share of hurricanes. It also turns out that hurricanes are so large that they cause serious effects way beyond the eye of the storm.
As you read in Installment No. 5 of the Tales, I was thrilled to be in Sea Gate Marina because of its reputation as one of the best “hurricane holes” on the East Coast. To understand why that is so, you need to understand the destructive characteristics of a hurricane. The most obvious element of a hurricane is its extremely high winds, 75 miles per hour up to as high as 200 miles per hour, with about 110 miles per hour being an average, if there is such a figure. But, until the winds get into the 115 miles per hour range and above, the wind alone is not usually the direct cause of the greatest damage. To give you a feel for this idea, consider the defensive technique used in the Beaufort area by those who can afford to do it. They run to Bock Marine and have their boats pulled out of the water and set up on the hard. The boats are balanced on their keels with only jackstands to keep them from turning over. You would think that this would be the absolutely worst thing to do in the face of a hurricane. And, if wind were the primary culprit, you would be correct.
It turns out, however, that wind is not the worst enemy; it is the water. Wind-driven waves, storm surges, extreme tides, and flooding usually cause the greatest destruction along a coast. Because of its density, a large wave packs a huge amount of energy that is practically irresistible. With salt water weighing in at about sixty-four pounds per cubic foot, it only takes a volume of water a little over three feet on each side to weigh a full ton. To get another feel for how powerful water is, keep in mind that wood floats, that is, it is less dense than water. Plus, wood can be compressed, while, in liquid form, water is virtually incompressible. If a solid piece of wood the size of a house were about to hit you at thirty miles per hour, it would probably be time to duck. Water in the form of a large wave is even worse! You might ride over a wave, cut through a wave, or even deflect a wave under some circumstances; but when a wave has taken on hurricane size and speed, direct confrontation is only meant for rocky cliffs and shores.
In addition to huge breaking waves, hurricanes push gigantic area-wide bulges of water before them. When these bulges reach the shore and drive in through the inlets, they create sudden floods of water from the ocean called “storm surges.” While not transferring quite as much energy as a direct hit from a breaking wave, these surges are like a wall of water that still packs an extraordinary wallop. A boat in the path can easily be ripped from its mooring, rolled, and torn to pieces in the blink of an eye.
Accordingly, Defensive Tactic Number One is obviously to stay out of the way of breaking waves. We do that by simply getting behind whatever we can, preferably the biggest piece of land available. Defensive Tactic Number Two is equally obvious, stay out of the way of the storm surge. We do that by getting as far inland as possible. This works because as the storm surge drives inland, the energy is absorbed by the interior shoreline, bodies of water, and unfortunate boats in its path.
Sea Gate Marina fits the bill for Tactics One and Two about as well as possible and still have reasonable access to the ocean when the hurricane is no longer a threat. Sea Gate is about ten miles from the Ocean at Beaufort. Clearly, no breaking waves could ever pose a threat. But storm surges can travel many miles inland to work their wicked ways. Fortunately, there are sizable bodies of water and marshy areas between Beaufort Inlet and Sea Gate. There is the Turning Basin at the southeastern end of Morehead City and the Newport River just north of the City. These bodies can absorb a great flood of water and its inherent energy before it reaches the narrow Core Creek and Adams Creek that make up the ICW north of Beaufort. By the time a hurricane storm surge reaches Sea Gate and drives through the narrow entrance to the marina, it is more of a sudden rise in water level than a vicious wall of water.
But being in a hurricane hole and being prepared for a hurricane are two entirely different things. When I left Truelove at Sea Gate, I tied her bow between the nearest pylons, tied her stern to large cleats on the dock, and rigged spring lines running from the bow to cleats on the dock at the stern and from the cleats on Truelove’s stern to the pylons near the bow. She was ready for normal storms, but not hurricanes. Without more, she would be beaten severely against the dock and pylons as well as against other boats in the marina.
I had planned to visit Truelove in mid September. Appointments, court hearings, and all other “distractions” were pushed around to clear my schedule for the glorious trip to heaven. It simply did not fit in with my plans to go a single day earlier. As the poet, Robert Burns, pointed out long ago, such plans are oft times laid asunder. He must have known about hurricanes. Hurricanes have their own plans, and, if you own a boat on the Atlantic Coast, you’re included.
During the summer, I had only kept a very cursory watch on storms in the Atlantic. I apparently assumed that I would have plenty of warning from the news media of any threatening hurricanes. It was luck or perhaps some subliminal message that caused me to use my computer in late August to check the Storm Center website maintained by CNN on the internet (http://www.cnn.com/WEATHER/storm.center/
index.html). It, in turn, lead me to the National Hurricane Center website maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Miami (http://www.
nhc.noaa.gov/products.html). I was shocked to learn that there was a big hurricane named Bonnie sitting right off the eastern shore of the Bahamas.
HURRICANE BONNIE INTERMEDIATE ADVISORY NUMBER 11A NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE MIAMI FL 8 AM AST SAT AUG 22 1998 A HURRICANE WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT FOR THE TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS..THE SOUTHEASTERN AND CENTRAL BAHAMAS. A HURRICANE WATCH COULD BE ISSUED FOR THE NORTHWESTERN BAHAMAS LATER TODAY. PREPARATIONS TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY SHOULD BE RUSHED TO COMPLETION IN THE HURRICANE WARNING AREA. BONNIE COULD THREATEN THE EAST COAST OF THE UNITED STATES WITHIN THE NEXT FEW DAYS. AT 8 AM AST THE CENTER OF HURRICANE BONNIE WAS LOCATED BY RECONNAISSANCE PLANE NEAR LATITUDE 22.4 NORTH..LONGITUDE 70.0 WEST OR ABOUT 100 MILES NORTHEAST OF TURK ISLAND.
Once Bonnie got my attention, I was rivited to the computer, trying to gather every piece of information the internet had to offer. There were histories of past hurricanes showing their eradic paths and differing levels of destruction (links at the CNN Storm Center webpage). There were charts showing the number of hurricanes that had hit each section of the Coast. There were great sites that let you fly along with the Hurricane Hunters (http://www.hurricanehunters.com/). There were sites where you could learn all about the dynamics of hurricanes.
But general knowledge was not what I had in mind. I wanted to know where Bonnie was going and when she planned to get there. That information proved to be much more elusive than I had ever imagined, not for lack of a wealth of data on the internet, but because of the very nature of hurricanes.
I found that the National Hurricane Center published its data in several forms on its internet site. There were “advisories”— bullitins more for public consumption and boadcast by the news media. There were “discussions”— semi-technical statements seemingly aimed at amature and professional meterologist. These discussions gave a surprisingly candid view of how difficult it is to accurately predict weather in general and hurricanes in particular. There were “strike probabilities”—notices that listed various cities and other locations, giving the percentage possiblity that each city would be hit by the hurricane within several time periods. In addition to the textual messages, there were colorful graphics with maps showing the track of the hurricane, maps of the areas under watches and warnings, maps showing the perdicted path of the hurricane with varrying degrees of probability shown in different colors, and graphs giving the anticipated increases and decreases in wind speed.
HURRICANE BONNIE DISCUSSION NUMBER 13 5 PM SAT AUG 22 1998 BONNIE HAS SLOWED DOWN..AS FORECAST BY THE GFDL..AND THE INITIAL MOTION IS 300/11. LATEST NOGAPS KEEPS THE HURRICANE ON A GENERAL NORTHWEST TO NORTH-NORTHWEST TRACK AND BRINGS THE CENTER OF BONNIE NEAR THE SOUTH CAROLINA COAST BY EARLY WEDNESDAY.
The “300/11” refers to the direction of forward travel, 300 degrees, approximately west-northwest, and a forward-motion speed of eleven knots. The “GFDL” and “NOGAPS” refer to meterlogical computer models that try to predict what a hurricane is going to do. Great! She’s going to get South Carolina and not me. Then by the next morning:
HURRICANE BONNIE ADVISORY NUMBER 15 5 AM EDT SUN AUG 23 1998 AT 5 AM EDT THE CENTER OF HURRICANE BONNIE WAS LOCATED NEAR LATITUDE 23.8 NORTH..LONGITUDE 71.7 WEST OR ABOUT 180 MILES EAST OF SAN SALVADOR ISLAND IN THE BAHAMAS. STEERING CURRENTS HAVE WEAKENED..AND BONNIE IS NOW MOVING TOWARD THE NORTHWEST NEAR 6 MPH. MAXIMUM SUSTAINED WINDS ARE NEAR 105 MPH WITH HIGHER GUSTS. THIS MAKES BONNIE A STRONG CATEGORY TWO HURRICANE ON THE SAFFIR/SIMPSON HURRICANE SCALE. SOME ADDITIONAL STREGTHENING IS FORECAST DURING THE NEXT 24 HOURS.
By Sunday afternoon, Bonnie had slowed down even more and had started getting “squirrelly.” My education in the unpredictability of hurricanes was about to begin. And, when you are trying hard to find out whether or not you are going to have to make an emergency trip to the Coast, squirreliness and unpredictability are mind-boggling torture.
HURRICANE BONNIE DISCUSSION NUMBER 17 5 PM EDT SUN AUG 23 1998 WE ARE NOW FACED WITH THE DILEMMA OF THE FUTURE COURSE OF THIS HURRICANE. THE PROBLEM IS COMPOUNDED BY THE FACT THAT SOME OF OUR BEST TRACK PREDICTION MODELS HAVE SHIFTED SIGNIFICANTLY TO THE LEFT AS COMPARED TO THIS MORNING. ANOTHER MULTI-AIRCRAFT MISSION INVOLVING AIRCRAFT FROM BOTH NOAA AND NASA WILL PROVIDE EXTENSIVE SAMPLING OF THE STEERING ENVIRONMENT TODAY. THEIR OBSERVATIONS SHOULD HELP IMPROVE THE INITIALIZATION AND BRING THE TRACK PREDITCTIONS TOGETHER..AND IMPROVE CONFIDENCE IN THIS VERY DIFFICULT FORECAST SITUATION.
By early Monday morning, Bonnie was still jerking me around.
HURRICANE BONNIE ADVISORY NUMBER 19 5 AM EDT MON AUG 24 1998..DANGEROUS HURRICANE BONNIE DRIFTING ERRATICALLY..AT 5 AM EDT THE CENTER OF HURRICANE BONNIE WAS LOCATED NEAR LATITUDE 25.2 NORTH..LONGITUDE 72.2 WEST OR ABOUT 165 MILES EAST-NORTHEAST OF SAN SALVADOR ISLAND IN THE BAHAMAS. THE CENTER OF BONNIE CONTINUES TO DRIFT ERRATICALLY..BUT IS EXPECTED TO BEGIN TO MOVE TOWARD THE NORTHWEST AT 5 MPH TODAY AND TO GRADUALLY INCREASE ITS FORWARD SPEED. MAXIMUM SUSTAINED WINDS REMAIN NEAR 115 MPH WITH HIGHER GUSTS. SOME FLUCTUATION IN INTENSITY MAY OCCUR BUT BONNIE IS FORECAST TO REMAIN A CATEGORY THREE HURRICANE FOR THE NEXT 24 HOURS. LARGE SWELLS ARE PROPAGATING WELL AHEAD OF THE HURRICANE AND ARE IMPACTING PORTIONS OF THE SOUTHEAST U.S. COAST.
By Monday afternoon, the uncertainty had not improved.
HURRICANE BONNIE DISCUSSION NUMBER 21 5 PM EDT MON AUG 24 1998 A SLOW MOTION TOWARD THE NORTHWEST IS EVIDENT..ESTIMATED TO BE 325/05. OBJECTIVE GUIDANCE IS..SHALL I SAY..DIVERGENT. AT 72 HOURS THERE IS NEARLY A 1200 N MI SPREAD BETWEEN THE MEDIUM BAM..NEAR THE GEORGIA COAST..AND THE GFDL WHICH RECURVES BONNIE OUT TO SEA.
To add to my misery, other people along the East Coast were beginning to wake up to the possibility of Bonnie coming to visit. And just as I had done, they glued themselves to the computer to get the latest information. Unfortunately, the National Hurricane Center had apparantly not anticipated how popular its site would be.
NOTE..THE NHC INTERNET SITE IS BEING OVERLOADED..FORCING OCCASIONAL SHUTDOWNS.
Great! Now I was blind as well as dumb! But then, by Tuesday morning, the situation suddenly changed. Bonnie started to move and take a more predictable path. And not only a more definite path, but one straight at Truelove. My prospects were quickly beginning to look very bad. As you read the following advisory, keep in mind that Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks are just fifty miles give-or-take from Sea Gate Marina and “further south” means Beaufort.
HURRICANE BONNIE ADVISORY NUMBER 23 5 AM EDT TUE AUG 25 1998 AT 5 AM EDT THE CENTER OF HURRICANE BONNIE WAS LOCATED NEAR LATITUDE 28.1 NORTH..LONGITUDE 74.0 WEST OR ABOUT 500 MILES SOUTH OF CAPE HATTERAS NORTH CAROLINA. BONNIE IS MOVING TOWARD THE NORTH NORTHWEST NEAR 9 MPH AND THIS MOTION IS EXPECTED TO CONTINUE TODAY WITH SOME INCREASE IN FORWARD SPEED. THE FORECAST TRACK BRINGS THE CENTER NEAR THE OUTER BANKS OF NORTH CAROLINA ON WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON AND BRINGS TROPICAL STORM FORCE WINDS TO THE COAST ON WEDNESDAY MORING. IF THE HURRICANE SHOULD MOVE TO THE LEFT OF THE FORECAST TRACK..HURRICANE WARNINGS WILL BE NEEDED FURTHER SOUTH IN THE WATCH AREA. MAXIMUM SUSTAINED WINDS ARE NEAR 115 MPH WITH HIGHER GUSTS. SOME FLUCTUATIONS MAY OCCUR BUT BONNIE IS EXPECTED TO REMAIN A POWERFUL HURRICANE FOR THE NEXT 24 HOURS. BONNIE IS A LARGE HURRICANE. HURRICANE FORCE WINDS EXTEND OUTWARD UP TO 145 MILES FROM THE CENTER AND TROPICAL STORM FORCE WINDS EXTEND OUTWARD UP TO 190 MILES. STORM SURGE FLOODING IS EXPECTED NEAR AND TO THE NORTH OF WHERE THE HURRICANE REACHES THE COAST..WITH WATER LEVELS INCREASEING UP TO 9 TO 11 FEET ABOVE NORMAL ASTRONOMICAL TIDAL LEVELS.
Within the next three hours, Bonnie increased her forward speed to eleven knots and decreased her distance from Cape Hatteras. By 11:00 a.m. EDT, the forward speed had increased again to sixteen knots and the distance was reported to be down to 340 miles. As the 11:00 a.m. advisory stated:
THE FORECAST TRACK BRINGS THE CENTER NEAR THE OUTER BANKS OF NORTH CAROLINA LATE WEDNESDAY MORNING. TROPICAL STORM FORCE WINDS ARE LIKELY TO ARRIVE AT THE COAST OF SOUTH CAROLINA AND NORTH CAROLINA NEAR MIDNIGHT AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS NEAR DAWN WEDNESDAY.
Damn!! Bonnie’s earlier indecision had lulled me into indecisiveness myself. Then, when the situation changed suddenly from a lollygaging possible threat to a focused menace, I was caught “out of position.” Even if I left Bowling Green immediately, could I get to Truelove in time to protect her?
I called my sister, Laura, and her husband, Bill, in Cary, North Carolina. They told me that if Bonnie hit Beaufort as predicted, the authorities would shut down the area and force people to evacuate. And even if I could get past the authorities, there would be trees and utility poles all across the roads. In other words, I might get within a hundred miles of Sea Gate, but I would probably have a hard time getting to Truelove.
Nevertheless, I had to try. I loaded every thing I could think of into my four-wheel-drive Suburban, chainsaw, crowbar, tow chains, emergency lights, jugs of water, emergency rations. By Tuesday afternoon I was on my way. Thirteen hours of overnight driving lay ahead. Thirteen hours of agonizing about what I would face when I got there.
Just before dawn I was getting close. At Havelock, North Carolina I turned off of Highway 70 onto the secondary road that leads to Sea Gate. Just about fifteen miles to go. As I topped the hill right at the entrance to the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, there they were – enough red and blue flashing lights to give a rescue squad groupee an organism. No, no, no!!! I can’t get this close and be blocked from getting to Truelove. She needs me. What can I tell these people to convince them to let me through? A sick friend? Get ready, Lee. Twenty-seven years of professional BS-ing has prepared you for this one moment in time. You must get through!
lying Sea Gate Marina
Core Creek, North Carolina