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Bertha Hits Bermuda [UPDATED]

Hurricane Bertha caused one weatherblogger to "throw out the models," so anomalous was her behavior. Is this a sign of what's ahead? [LATEST UPDATE: Jul. 15, 09:42 am PST]

by
Brendan Loy

Bio

July 9, 2008 - 12:00 am
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UPDATE (Jul. 15, 09:42 am PST)

Tropical Storm Bertha never quite regained hurricane strength while lashing Bermuda yesterday, and although the island was buffeted by wind gusts as high as 80 mph, Bermudians appear to have emerged from the storm’s wrath relatively unscathed. Several thousand homes lost power, and some trees collapsed onto cars, but there have been no reports of injuries, and the storm appears to have been mostly an inconvenience.

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The headlines on the Bermuda Sun‘s website hardly paint a picture of devastation: “Delayed garbage collection as a result of Tropical Storm Bertha,” reads one. “Causeway re-opens after rush hour closure,” declares another.

In fact, the unexpected closure of The Causeway — which connects Bermuda’s two main cities, Hamilton (the capital) and St. George (home of the airport) — appears to have been one of Bertha’s most significant impacts on the island’s population. Monday was initially treated as a “business as usual” day in Bermuda, with most islanders going to work as normal, despite the presence of a strong tropical storm just offshore. The government declared that it intended to keep the Causeway open. But then Bertha unexpectedly strengthened to near hurricane strength, and at 4:55 PM local time, the government changed its mind. As a result:

Some were unable to get back to their families when the Causeway was closed at short notice just before 5 p.m. It reopened just after 8 p.m.

Buses and cars heading to St. George’s were unable to cross the bridge and frustrated motorists and passengers were forced to wait for it to reopen. . . .

The abrupt closing of the Causeway caused problems for those needing to get in and out of the East End but Government said it could not have been avoided.

A spokeswoman explained that information from reconnaissance planes about the dangerous conditions came in at the last minute.

“It’s a funny behaving storm,” she said. “It’s just been up and down and we have just been trying to follow it as best we can.”

[Public Safety Minister David] Burch went on radio station Hott 107.5 to urge the public to be patient while waiting for the bridge to reopen. But callers rang to chastise him for the decision to close at such short notice, with one woman describing how her young son was left home alone because she had assumed she would be able to get across.

American tourist Kathy Borden, from Portland, Oregon, told The Royal Gazette at 7.30 p.m: “We are stuck on a bus with no food and no water and we have got wet clothes on.”

“People have to go to the bathroom and are trying to find places to go outside. We want to know why are the buses are still running if the Causeway is closed?”

Sen. Burch told Hott listeners that the Causeway usually closed if gusts reached 50 knots and last night they got to 69 knots. “Hurricanes are unpredictable and I will accept all criticism from the public for the decision that was made,” he said.

Far be it for me to second-guess the wisdom of local officials in jurisdictions not named Louisiana, but the statement that “it could not have been avoided” is clearly wrong: closing the Causeway all day Monday, as a precaution, would obviously have avoided any possibility of an unexpected last-minute closure. And while hindsight is 20/20, the fact that a 5-mph increase in wind speed was enough to change officials’ minds probably indicates that the wrong decision was made initially. One never knows when a tropical cyclone might suddenly intensify — as Bertha, “funny behaving storm” that she is, has proven repeatedly — so last-minute actions that can potentially strand people in the storm’s wrath are not terribly wise as a matter of policy. Better safe than sorry, as they say.

Closing the Causeway from the get-go would have forced some Bermudians to remain in their homes Monday — rather than commuting to and from work while Bertha was hitting the island — and would have eliminted the possibility of people being forced to wait idly in their cars, on the wrong side of the Causeway, during a hurricane. The latter scenario is pretty much a disaster planner’s worst nightmare, and while Bertha didn’t quite regain hurricane strength, maybe the next similarly situated storm will intensify a bit more than Bertha did, and will pose a more serious danger for the folks who get stranded. Probably better to err on the side of caution next time around, in this weather nerd’s humble opinion.

In any event, here’s how the Royal Gazette summed things up this morning:

Torrential rain and 70 mph winds battered Bermuda yesterday as Tropical Storm Bertha . . . passed over the Island.

Trees collapsed onto cars, thousands of homes suffered power outages and all flights were cancelled as Islanders hurried home to batten down the hatches against hurricane-strength gusts. . . .

Afternoon ferry services were cancelled . . . The cyclone caused waves of between 15 and 20 feet outside the reef and between four and six feet inside.

Bermuda Weather Service duty forecaster Geoffrey Saville said that wind gusts close to 80 mph (70 knots) were recorded at the Commissioner’s House at Dockyard. “That’s pretty strong gusts and that was just what was recorded,” he said. . . .

The wet weather caused some properties to flood, including a home in Whale Bay where firefighters climbed onto the roof to stop water coming through the light fixtures. Meanwhile, almost 7,000 homes were without power from late afternoon. Residential garbage collection was also disrupted as was Internet service for some users.

In Hamilton, rows of motorcycles were knocked to the ground and there were reports of flying debris and intermittent flooding on the roads, as well as poor visibility for drivers. . . . A car overturned near the Waterlot Inn in Southampton at about 2 p.m. but no one was reported to have been injured. . . .

Government offices remained open but some private firms decided to send staff home early and several day care centres sent children home. . . .

[A power-company spokeswoman] said that all but 700 customers had power restored by 9 p.m. Crews were due to continue working till midnight and will resume at 7 a.m. today.

Diane Gordon, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, said she fielded a number of calls yesterday morning from worried businesses but encouraged everyone to remain calm.

“Officially no businesses have been reported closed,” she said, adding that Hamilton had been very quiet at about 3 p.m. meaning some firms probably had let employees go home.

About a thousand travellers — including the victorious Scottish cricket team which beat Bermuda — were affected when all 16 commercial flights off the Island were cancelled[.]

Incidentally, interested readers can learn more about that Scotland-Bermuda cricket match, which took place on Saturday, here (from the Bermudian perspective) and here (from the U.K. perspective). But back to Bertha…

The National Hurricane Center’s 11:00 AM advisory declares that Tropical Storm Bertha, now safely away from Bermuda and moving steadily out to sea, will likely “HANG AROUND FOR A FEW MORE DAYS,” and could become a hurricane again later today or tomorrow. The discussion makes clear that NHC forecasters are getting rather tired of writing about this long-lived storm, which is now a threat only to shipping interests. In about five days, forecaster Eric Blake writes, “A COMBINATION OF COOLER WATERS AND AN UPPER-LEVEL TROUGH INTERACTION MAY…HOPEFULLY…START TO SIGNAL THE DEMISE OF BERTHA AS A TROPICAL CYCLONE.”

By then, we may be dealing with Tropical Storm — or perhaps Hurricane — Cristobal. But there’s no major news yet to report on that front. In fact, the National Hurricane Center has downgraded the probability that “Invest 94L” will imminently become a tropical depression from “High” (above 50%) to “Medium” (between 20% and 50%). Meteorologist and weatherblogger Bryan Woods points out that some computer models have “backed off” their predictions that 94L will develop into Cristobal, and the NHC’s 8:00 AM Tropical Weather Outlook states, “ALTHOUGH THIS SYSTEM STILL HAS THE POTENTIAL TO BECOME A TROPICAL DEPRESSION WITHIN THE NEXT DAY OR SO…ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS ARE BECOMING LESS FAVORABLE FOR DEVELOPMENT.”

UPDATE (Jul. 14, 12:53 pm PST)

It looks like Tropical Storm Bertha may have one last curveball to throw at forecasters. The NHC issued a rare 2:55 PM EDT update to announce a surprising finding: Bertha has re-strengthened to the cusp of hurricane strength!

DATA FROM AN AIR FORCE RESERVE UNIT RECONNAISSANCE AIRCRAFT INDICATE THAT BERTHA IS JUST BELOW HURRICANE STRENGTH…WITH MAXIMUM SUSTAINED WINDS OF 70 MPH. THESE WINDS ARE LOCATED TO THE SOUTHWEST OF THE CENTER IN A RAINBAND THAT WILL BE PASSING OVER BERMUDA DURING THE NEXT FEW HOURS. IT IS POSSIBLE THAT BERTHA WILL REACH HURRICANE STRENGTH BEFORE CLEARING BERMUDA.

As a result, the government of Bermuda has issued a Hurricane Watch for the island, which also remains under a Tropical Storm Warning (rather obviously, since it is currently experiencing tropical storm conditions).

UPDATE (Jul. 14, 12:13 pm PST)

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The western eyewall of Tropical Storm Bertha is raking Bermuda this afternoon with heavy rains and sustained winds of at least 63 miles per hour — but the island appears to be faring well thus far. Meanwhile, swimmers along the U.S. East Coast are being urged to exercise caution after two people drowned off the Jersey Shore because of rip currents generated by the distant storm.

As this excellent radar loop shows, Bertha’s center of circulation came within about 50 kilometers, or roughly 30 miles, of Bermuda. But because Bertha has such a massive eye, the eyewall is passing directly over the island.

A longer-range, longer-term radar loop, showing the storm’s approach,
can be seen here. The visible satellite view also shows the storm’s proximity to the island:

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According to the National Hurricane Center’s 2:00 PM EDT advisory, “THE CENTER OF BERTHA IS NOW EDGING AWAY FROM BERMUDA…[BUT] STRONG WINDS IN A RAINBAND TO THE SOUTHWEST OF THE CENTER HAVE YET TO CLEAR THE ISLAND.” It is possible that tropical storm force winds could persist through tomorrow morning as Bertha slowly inches away from the island.

The report of a 63 mile-per-hour sustained wind reading comes from an “elevated” station on Commissioner’s Point, on the western end of the island, according to the National Hurricane Center. It is possible that winds are slightly stronger on the east side of the island, which is marginally closer to the storm’s center. The NHC’s official estimate for Bertha’s maximum sustained surface winds is 65 mph. The storm is moving north at 7 mph.

According to Bermuda newspaper The Royal Gazette:

Tropical Storm Bertha was sweeping by Bermuda this afternoon bringing high winds and rain . . .Seas outside the reef were today between 15 and 20 feet and inside the reef, between four and six feet.

All ferry services were cancelled this afternoon, though they are scheduled to resume tomorrow as normal and buses were running on schedule today. The causeway also remained open.

Flights in and out of the Island were cancelled for all airlines today . . .

Some electricity outages had been reported in both the West and East Ends of the Island.

The island seems to be coping well, however. Dianne Gordon, executive director of the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce, said it’s “business as normal” for most people on the island. And, in a sure sign that things aren’t looking too bleak, the local media is stretching rather severely to find a “harrowing” story about the storm. Again quoting from the Gazette:

For manager of PVC Windows and Doors, John Paul it was a harrowing experience just before mid-day as he watched a tree fall on top of two cars.

He said: “It was so disturbing. It was horrific. I was standing by the door and I heard the crash and a crackling noise. It had two cars underneath the tree.

“The cars were damaged — it didn’t completely crush [them,] but it was lying on them.”

Damaged, not-quite-crushed cars!! Oh, the humanity!! “Other reports of flying debris and intermittent flooding were reported,” the Gazette adds helpfully.

On a more tragic note, at least two people drowned in the waters off New Jersey over the weekend, apparently due to dangerous rip currents caused by Bertha’s high surf.

Although Bertha is many hundreds of miles from the U.S. coast, strong and dangerous waves — generated days ago, when Bertha was a stronger storm — will persist for several more days.

Bertha herself, however, is moving away from land. The forecast track calls for the storm to continue moving north, then turn northeast before meandering eastward in an “undulating” fashion over the next several days. But the storm will be of concern only to shipping lanes from here on out.

Meanwhile, the bigger news in the tropics is arguably what’s happening in the central Atlantic, in between Africa and the Lesser Antilles, with “Invest 94L,” or — as I like to call it — “proto-Cristobal.”

It now seems quite likely that this tropical wave will become a depression, and soon thereafter a storm — Tropical Storm Cristobal — in the next day or two. If so, it will have plenty of warm water to work with as it moves westward, toward the islands, in the coming days. meteorologist Bryan Woods, guestblogging for Dr. Jeff Masters says that, between Bertha and “94L,” the latter “has the potential to create a much higher impact event.”

Woods writes that “the situation bears further watching. This system could eventually end up anywhere in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, or western Atlantic, and at any strength.” It’s far too early to say anything more detailed than that, but it is possible that Cristobal could be the first real blockbuster storm of the season. Stay tuned, as they say.

UPDATE (Jul. 13, 03:23 pm PST)

Hurricane Bertha was downgraded to a tropical storm this morning, weakened by cooler waters from beneath the ocean’s surface that her own relentless winds have dredged up.

Yet Bertha remains a “vigorous” tropical storm, with the potential to bring squally weather to Bermuda as she passes just east of the island tomorrow — assuming she obeys the forecasts and actually starts moving again.

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Early yesterday, Bertha “SEEMINGLY DROPPED ANCHOR A COUPLE HUNDRED MILES SOUTHEAST OF BERMUDA,” and has barely moved since. As a result, the storm’s winds have churned up the same patch of ocean for more than 24 hours, causing “upwelling,” or cooling of the waters underneath Bertha. That, in turn, has weakened the storm, slowing its maximum sustained winds to 65 mph as of 5:00 PM EDT.

This morning, National Hurricane Center forecaster Lexicon Avila declared that Bertha had begun crawling northwestward — only to correct himself six hours later, stating, “BERTHA FOOLED ME ONCE AGAIN.” In fact, Avila wrote, Bertha had been “moving in circles,” and remained essentially stationary.

The computer models “insist,” however, that Bertha will begin moving tonight. The official forecast brings the storm’s center less than 100 miles from Bermuda tomorrow afternoon. (Already, Bertha’s outer bands can be seen on Bermuda radar. However, the western side of the storm is weaker than the eastern side; in fact, as the visible satellite shows, it’s currently not even cloudy in Bermuda.)

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In any event, shortly after passing the island, Bertha is expected to turn more sharply to the east and slowly transition from a tropical storm to an extratropical storm over the open ocean. It is no longer expected to affect Newfoundland.

Bertha was a hurricane for six days, not quite enough to break the record for the longest-lived July hurricane on record. 2005′s Hurricane Emily still holds that mark, at seven days. However, Bertha will most likely break the record for longest-lasting named storm in July (including both tropical storms and hurricanes). The current record is 12 days; Bertha has been around for 10 and counting.

Meanwhile, there is the potential for a new tropical depression to form this week. The system, which has been designated “Invest 94L” by the NHC, sits roughly halfway between Africa and the Lesser Antilles. If 94L becomes a named storm, it would be Tropical Storm Cristobal — and it could potentially threaten the Antilles in about a week’s time.

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