The East coast of the U.S. is preparing for the onslaught of Hurricane Irene in the next 48 hours. The storm is expected to be a Category 2-3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale when it makes landfall near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
How will Irene compare with past hurricanes? Irene has tropical storm force winds (> 39 mph) up to 430 miles from the center! It is an enormous storm, larger than Hugo, Ike, and Katrina, major hurricanes that hit the United States in the past 3 decades.
In addition to size, Irene is competitive with strong storms of the past. Of the 3 listed above, only Hugo was more powerful (based on wind speed), making landfall in South Carolina as a Category 4 storm (1989). Ike hit Cuba twice, with Cat 4 and Cat 1 winds respectively, then churned into the Gulf of Mexico and strengthened to become a strong Cat 2 by the time it made landfall in Galveston, Texas (2008).
Most people remember Hurricane Katrina (2005) as the most expensive natural disaster that ever occurred in the U.S. The storm was only a Category 1 when it crossed Florida, but by the time it reached the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana it was Category 3. The most damaging aspect of Katrina was the rainfall and storm surge which caused extensive flooding, especially in low-lying areas of the Mississippi delta.
Hurricane Irene may also wreak havoc by flooding coastal as well as some inland areas with a combination of tremendous rainfall and storm surge. Due to its size, the rain bands may reach as far inland as Philadelphia and Burlington, Vermont. While the Midwest and Southeast have suffered from drought conditions in the spring and summer of 2011, the Northeast has had greater than normal rainfall. As a result, areas such as New York City and Philadelphia are already soggy and will be vulnerable to extreme flooding, depending on the track and strength of Irene.
The Northeast coast track is uncommon as hurricanes go; the Gulf of Mexico and Southeast U.S. are much more likely to experience tropical weather. When storms do travel up the east coast, they may diminish in strength due to cooler waters. However, fast-moving storms can maintain their circulation and moisture long enough to attack vulnerable, highly populated coastal cities to the north.
Experts are warning residents not to take Irene lightly. For example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already announced evacuations for the lowest areas of Manhattan and Staten Islands. Further directives may be given as the storm’s track becomes more definite in the next 12 to 36 hours.
The American Red Cross, FEMA, and other organizations are preparing for the worst. The storm follows on the heels of a 5.9 earthquake in Virginia that was felt as far away as Toronto, Ontario and Atlanta, Georgia. Assistance from the federal government has already been requested for areas damaged by the earthquake, and the same areas, plus a large swathe of the East coast, will likely need emergency aid in the coming week.
Do you know how to prepare? If you are instructed to evacuate, do you know where to go and what to take with you? Check out the sources below to find out more about emergency preparation!