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Hurricane Charley: The Night the NWS Used a Wrench as a Hammer

The snakes in the weatherman's driveway, they knew something big was about to happen.

It was the morning of Friday the 13th, August 2004. Hurricane Charley was in the Gulf of Mexico, barreling toward Florida. And as Glenn Richards walked to his car for the drive to Orlando television station WOFL, where he worked as chief meteorologist, he watched a trio of serpents rouse themselves from a session of catching summer sunrays and slither toward a nearby pond.

Fourteen years later, Richards hasn't forgotten that image from one of the most memorable days of his career. What was to happen over the next hours will forever be remembered by history, and not only for Charley's deadly run up the peninsula. That evening in the Atlantic coast city of Melbourne, the National Weather Service's office, knowing the hurricane was plowing toward Central Florida, “used a wrench for a hammer,” in the words of then-Warning Coordinator Meteorologist Dennis Decker, to sound the alarm of the menacing eyewall's approach. Thanks to the innovative yet never-tried solution—issuing a tornado warning, although the danger was straight-line winds rather than the touchdowns of funnel clouds—lives were saved despite gusts reaching into the triple digits.

“I understood why they issued that warning for the entire area, but it was shocking to see,” Richards said. “It was an excellent move by the NWS.”

That solution, after refinement, now lives on in the form of an Extreme Wind Warning, or EWW, which is issued when surface, non-tornado winds of 115 mph or greater are expected within an hour.

And, as noted by Scott Spratt, who served as Melbourne's senior forecaster the evening of the 13th, “Ironically, once the EWW became an ‘official’ NWS warning product, our office was the first NWS office to issue it (for Hurricane Matthew in 2016)!”

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Before the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season, long-range forecasts called for a step up in tropical activity. Three days before Charley's landfall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated its experts were predicting a 90% probability of an above- to near-normal season and only a 10% chance of a below-normal season.

But, it's fair to say, no one in Central Florida paid much mind to the threat of hurricanes, and that collective outlook continued right up until Charley's landfall.

Much of the lackadaisical attitude came from regional memory. Forty-four years had passed since the previous strongest tropical cyclone to affect metro Orlando. And with Hurricane Donna's top gusts registering only 73 mph when it struck the city, that didn't even rate on the Saffir–Simpson scale.

“Without a doubt,” Richards said, “Central Florida was ‘sleeping.’”

Another problem arose in the days before landfall while the system cruised across the Caribbean Sea from the east-southeast, reached hurricane strength south of Jamaica, took a right turn, and clipped Cuba with the eye passing within a few miles west of Havana. During that time, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) began issuing predictions of Charley's future path, and while the forecasts' “cone of uncertainty” certainly encompassed much of the Florida peninsula, the fixation was on the line in the middle of that cone stabbing directly into Tampa Bay, 80-plus miles to Orlando's southwest.

“People were basically focusing too much on the NHC advisory and dotted line, and not as much as what the local WFOs (Weather Forecast Offices) were saying about their areas,” said Bart Hagemeyer, Melbourne's meteorologist-in-charge at the time and now retired.

Richards stated the same, but plainer: “I felt that all Floridians were caught with their pants down.”

As to inadvertently putting an official stamp on where Charley was headed, counties along the Gulf Coast declared states of emergency and ordered evacuations—with many evacuees deciding to ride out the storm in Orlando.

Small Turn, Big Change

On the morning of the 13th, Charley shifted and flexed.

When passing over Florida's Dry Tortugas shortly after dawn, Charley's sustained winds were peaking at 110 mph, making it a Category 2 hurricane. That's when it ran into an unseasonably strong mid-tropospheric trough digging from the east-central United States into the eastern Gulf. In response to the steering flow on the southeast side of this trough, the hurricane curved to the north-northeast and accelerated toward Florida's southwest coast, moving at a quick pace of about 21 mph. Even more, during this time Charley rapidly intensified into a Category 4 hurricane, packing winds approaching 145 mph.

Radar showing damaging winds around the hurricane’s eyewall on August 13, 2004.

Radar showing damaging winds around the hurricane’s eyewall on August 13, 2004.

The only good news to be found in the hours before landfall was the shrinking of the eyewall, meaning the most dangerous winds would be confined to within about 7 miles of the center.

Back at the Melbourne office, Hagemeyer and Senior Forecaster Tony Cristaldi were keeping wary eyes on Charley's every twitch during the a.m. hours.

“It was pretty clear early on that morning that Charley was turning further east and looking better organized,” Hagemeyer said.

That would put Central Florida square in the path of danger, because Charley's eyewall was certain to still be packing a punch by the time it arrived.

 

NWS Melbourne staffers monitor the situation as Hurricane Charley makes landfall.

NWS Melbourne staffers monitor the situation as Hurricane Charley makes landfall.

Cristaldi knew this could happen—when a tropical system approaches the peninsula at an oblique angle, he said, “all it takes is a jog east or a jog west”—but facing the reality of a hurricane charging up the Interstate 4 corridor, his heart sank.

The two quickly went to work alerting the public and media via “products,” as the NWS calls all information it releases, from reports of records to Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts. At 11:30 a.m. EDT, the office expanded an Inland Hurricane Wind Warning from just Lake County, on the western edge of its area of responsibility (called its county warning area), to include all of east-central Florida. Hagemeyer knew this warning wasn't too familiar to public and broadcasters, but it was the highest inland tropical wind product available. No matter the medium, the message was clear:

“THE BOTTOM LINE IS CENTRAL FLORIDA WILL BE ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF CHARLEY WHERE THE MAJORITY OF HIGH WINDS…RAINBANDS WITH TORNADOES AND HEAVY RAIN WILL OCCUR.”

Hurricane damage.

Hurricane damage.

At 2 p.m., the office sent out a Hurricane Local Statement, making explicit the comparison to Hurricane Donna in 1960. By now, the meteorologists scheduled to work the evening shift had arrived, so it was all hands on deck.

Spratt, who now serves as Melbourne's warning coordinator meteorologist, said there was a detailed schedule for what was being told to the public and when: Every 90–120 minutes, a comprehensive Hurricane Local Statement, sent to all of east-central Florida, would address the most significant, large-scale impacts; every 60 minutes, a Special Weather Statement would be issued for smaller geographic areas to address imminent changes/impacts to be expected; and every 20 minutes, a descriptive Severe Weather Statement would focus on the eyewall convection, detailing the location of the circulation center and providing wind observations and damage reports to emphasize the situation's severity and to help prompt/continue protective actions.

But Hagemeyer now doesn't think these helped much with public safety: “What we found out later, was these products get lost in the information overload.”

In Case of Emergency, Break Glass

Around 2:45 p.m. EDT, Charley and its 150-mph winds crashed ashore near Cayo Costa, just north of Captiva and outside Charlotte Harbor. A half-hour later, the eye slammed into the cities of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, wreaking devastation. But the crew in Melbourne—working as “a unified living/breathing thing,” recalled Science & Operations Officer David Sharp—didn't have much time to note the arrival.

Aerial image of destroyed homes in Punta Gorda (USA), following hurricane Charley.

Aerial image of destroyed homes in Punta Gorda (USA), following hurricane Charley.

With the hurricane due in Central Florida by nightfall, the clock was ticking down to exhaust all possibilities for cautioning the public of what was to come. But beyond the already-issued Hurricane Warning and the Inland Hurricane Wind Warning, there wasn't much left in Melbourne's toolbox to get people's attention.

As the crew worked throughout the day, however, an idea had been germinating: a tornado warning. Looking at the conditions of Charley, it made sense to do so:

  • At the hurricane's core, radar showed a persistence of intense reflectivity (>50 dBZ) and downward momentum transfer, suggesting a high probability of extreme but localized wind damage.
  • Charley was moving quickly, with a translational motion of 20–25 mph, adding to wind threat while also not giving much lead time for those affected.
  • But the cyclone also had very small radius of maximum winds, about six miles, which would confine the swath of potentially extreme damage to narrow corridor.

Still, issuing such a warning was unprecedented. Hagemeyer, who had the final say, didn't flinch, because knew he'd have the backing of his superiors.

“The meteorologists-in-charge in most parts of the NWS, particularly in the Southern Region, where I spent most of my time, they're pretty much empowered do whatever they thought necessary,” Hagemeyer said.

Before Charley, the most recent example of a WFO inventing a product on the fly came five years earlier, during an outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma City. As a huge twister (later determined to be an F5) approached the metro area, the Forecast Office in nearby Norman declared the NWS's first-ever “tornado emergency” to emphasize the danger. Although more than 40 people died, either directly or indirectly because of the tornado, the NWS later estimated the body count could've exceeded 600 without advance warning and education on what to do in weather emergencies.

The decisions made in Norman and Melbourne upheld a proud culture within the NWS, the legacy of a long-gone legend.

In early September 1900, what then was known as the Weather Bureau knew of a tropical system that had struck Cuba while heading in a northern direction. But forecasters in Washington D.C., working off what little information was available in the era, predicted its destination would be Florida. The Bureau was very wrong.

Hundreds of miles to the west, in the Bureau's Galveston, Texas office, Chief Meteorologist Isaac Cline soon found himself on the spot as the system bore down on the wealthy port city. On September 9, just before the Category 4 storm made landfall, demolishing the sand island and killing at least 6,000 people, Cline dispensed with Bureau policies, unilaterally issuing a hurricane warning with getting the go-ahead from Washington. History has long debated just how many lives Cline saved with this moment of mutiny, but his actions are ingrained in NWS ethos: Do what you need to do for public safety, rulebook be damned.

Nuts and Bolts

With the matter settled of whether Melbourne could and should issue such a warning, the crew still had to answer a few questions: What should the warning say? What area should it cover? When should it be sent out?

As for how to describe the eyewall's danger, Sharp said, “We treated it like a 20-mile wide EF2 tornado!”

Then, Spratt said, parameters began to take shape: The warning would only be issued only once for any particular geographic area, about 30 minutes before the onset of the destructive winds to ensure maximum accuracy of impact area, timing, and magnitude, and to alleviate any possibility of a false alarm, and only be in effect for an hour. Sharp noted the phrase “and tornadoes” was added after the mention of the winds for clarity. And if radar showed the inner core of convection weakening upon approach to the Orlando area and/or if winds at 100 mph or greater were less likely to occur at ground level, no warning would be issued at all.

According to Spratt, the group decided to prepare the media and public, in advance of the warning's issuance, by using Hurricane Local Statements to describe the best safety advice for when the onset of the destructive winds occurred (for example, sheltering within their shelter as they would for a tornado warning).

While details of the warning were hashed out, underscoring its looming importance were the first flashes of news from Southwest Florida where Charley had begun its damaging march.

On a statewide conference call of government officials, emergency response teams, and meteorologists, a dispatch from battered Hardee County, which had just experienced gusts of 109 mph, still sticks with Sharp. It was an emergency manager using a satellite telephone to describe catastrophic damage throughout the county.

Sharp said: “I still remember the trembling in his voice as he provided the report, and thinking, this is an inland county with only one other county (Polk) separating it from our area (Osceola County).”

Bracing for Impact

At 6:42 p.m. EDT, less than four hours after Charley's landfall on the peninsula, Decker sent out the warning. Effective for southern Lake County, northwestern Osceola County, and all of Orange County, the text clearly stated the danger expected:

“THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HAS ISSUED A TORNADO WARNING FOR DESTRUCTIVE WINDS OVER 100 MPH AND TORNADOES IN THE EYEWALL AND INNER RAIN BANDS OF HURRICANE CHARLEY.”

The leading edge of these winds were forecast to arrive in the Kissimmee and greater Orlando area at 7:15 p.m.; the danger was expected to last until at least 9 p.m.

At the moment the warning landed, Richards was in the middle of what he called “an eight-hour storm-tracking marathon.” Shortly after his encounter with the three snakes in the driveway, Richards arrived at work and saw, just as Melbourne had, Charley strengthening and turning. In reaction, WOFL shifted its remote crews to the east, away from Tampa, and adjusted its programming plans. By the afternoon, Richards knew Southwest Florida had been hit hard but found solace in the knowledge Charley's size was decreasing; its core still was strong, yet the wide impact was no longer.

As soon as the warning was sent out, alarm bells sounded immediately in the region's emergency operations centers and newsrooms. For those listening to radios or watching television, their devices emitted the distinctive shrieking buzz of the Emergency Alert System followed by either a computerized voice reading the text or a crawl across a screen showing the same. While a hurricane warning had been in effect for hours, the tornado warning grabbed everyone's notice—just as intended.

“I did a double-take,” admitted Richards.

WOFL's news director was stunned by the scope of the looming danger; Richards remembered being asked, “Are you sure it's for ALL of Central Florida?”

At the next opportunity, Richards told the station's viewers to anticipate tornado-like conditions while also pointing out he had never seen such an alert in his career.

NWS-Melbourne, by issuing the warning, had done what it could do to save lives. Richards' station and other media outlets then disseminated the warning to the public. Now it was up to the public to act appropriately and quickly for their own safety. Would they?

With The Force of a Category 2

It was just after 8 p.m. when Charley's worst winds entered Melbourne's area of responsibility, in Osceola County. Less than a half-hour later, Kissimmee was whipped by 75-mph gusts. (Although Charley was far more notable for its wind than rain, Kissimmee later was learned to have taken in the most precipitation in Melbourne's county warning area: 5.2 inches.) At eight minutes before 9 p.m., Orlando International Airport, closed to traffic since the afternoon and now sheltering about 1,000 stranded travelers, was rocked by a gust of 105 mph; two giant window panels of one terminal were blown in.

Straight line wind damage to a forest in Osceola County.

Straight line wind damage to a forest in Osceola County.

And so Charley rolled along to the northeast, with the worst winds of the eyewall and right-front quadrant blasting through Winter Park, Sanford, Deltona, and Edgewater before the system reached the Atlantic Ocean. There, it restrengthened in the Gulf Stream's warm waters and whacked Florida a final time en route to the Carolinas. On that last development, Hagemeyer still regrets not extending the tornado warning to include Volusia County.

All the while, the crew in Melbourne was taking real-time reports from spotters and following readings of anemometers until they were knocked offline by the wind. The facts on the ground seemed to support the decision to issue the warning but, Spratt said, “we knew it wouldn't be until first light that a better sense of the true destruction and personal impacts would begin to be known.”

“Shelter Within Your Shelter”

Richards knew the warning had worked before the eyewall's arrival, as WOFL took phone calls from people, now listening to a radio simulcast, seeking refuge in their homes' bathrooms and closets. “Nobody was taking this lightly,” he said.

By the time dawn broke, emergency officials could confirm Charley had passed through Melbourne's county warning area without causing a single death related to the eyewall's passage. There had been four fatalities due to traffic accidents, but no one died because they were surprised by hurricane-force winds.

Damage to a harbor.

Damage to a harbor.

For as novel and effective a solution from the Melbourne crew, the tornado warning didn't get much mainstream coverage in Charley's aftermath. Hagemeyer believes that was due to the immediate focus on the disaster recovery efforts, an outcry over the NHC forecasts that led people to fixate on Tampa as the landfall site, and the arrival in Florida of another three hurricanes (Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne) in the coming weeks.

Only later did the accolades come in.

“With time,” Spratt said, “our office received many unsolicited emails, letters and phone calls from emergency management/public safety and media partners, NASA officials, other meteorologists, and, most notably, local citizens who commended the actions of our staff for taking such proactive actions to help inform and protect east-central Florida residents and visitors.”

As could be expected, the NWS looked into the warning's creation and execution. The official ruling was a big thumbs-up, with the “Best Practice” seal of approval handed down in the post-storm service assessment.

Looking Toward the Horizon

Six weeks after Charley struck, Melbourne had to use the tornado warning again—this time for Jeanne, which was coming at the peninsula from the east. By then, emergency managers and the media had been briefed on what such a warning meant, so when Jeanne waded ashore near Stuart, packing maximum winds near 120 mph, everyone knew what to do.

Said Sharp, “We were far more confident of what we were doing and that it was right.”

The NWS eventually adopted Melbourne's solution, changing the name to Extreme Wind Warning, although it took time and effort pulling it through the federal bureaucracy while smoothing down rough edges. Still, the payoffs—in the moment and over time—were priceless.

“Now that the EWW is required under such rare, but truly life-threatening conditions,” said Scott, “I feel it is one of the most fulfilling accomplishments of my NWS career and I remain humbled by the experience of being part of the process from beginning to end.”

 

MIKE BRANOM is a freelance reporter/editor living in Pasadena, California. On the evening of Aug. 12, 2004, he was in a single-story, masonry building in Orlando, hoping an oak tree wouldn’t come crashing into the newsroom.

 

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