Watching Irene

I’m fascinated by big storms and other major weather events. And I’m sure I’m not the only one that has been following the track and development of Hurricane Irene in pretty great detail.

I was watching the Weather Channel last night just after 11 p.m., when the new official forecast and update on current conditions was released, and I was appalled at the lack of substance from the anchors. When they switched to a ridiculous segment on what’s being said about the weather on social media (who cares what the average Joe thinks about the weather when fresh data and a plethora of experts are available!), I turned the TV off and checked in with some solid websites, like the National Hurricane Center and Weather Underground.

Late last night, Irene jogged a little east to the edge of the computer model guidance, which seemed like good news. It looked like the storm might move well east today of longitude 77.3, but it’s been moving due north for hours now. As of this 11 a.m. update, it’s still on that line, although the wind speed has thankfully dropped a bit.

But Irene is a huge storm, as you can see from the screen capture from the 11 a.m. location. We’ve had a couple of squalls at my house this morning in Savannah — the extreme outer bands of Irene.

I’m perpetually amazed by how casually Americans view these storms, even people who should no better. Until 9 p.m. or so last night, when Irene was still predicted to make landfall as a category 3, the public schools in Wilmington, NC — which is right in the path of the storm — were still planning on a half-day of school today. Even places like Wilmington, which get hit or brushed by hurricanes routinely, seem more complacent than they should be about the danger of a direct hit by a major hurricane. There was a similar over-confidence a couple of years ago in Galveston and Houston about Ike, which mercifully jogged just a little bit before making landfall — a shift that probably prevented several thousand deaths from the storm surge of people who did not evacuate lowlying areas.

If you happen to be reading this and you’re up in North Carolina or anywhere on the northeast coast over the next couple of days, pay close attention. While it looks like Irene has weakened just enough to avoid the most catastrophic damage, it’s still a big big storm. Small changes in intensity, speed, or direction could have dire consequences.