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Why Did the National Hurricane Center Blow It on Earl?

Weather warnings obliterated New England's Labor Day weekend financially. Why were they in place when Earl didn't seem to pose much of a threat to the area?

by
Art Horn

Bio

September 10, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Businesses gearing up for a profitable Labor Day weekend in a recession economy were devastated, but it wasn’t Hurricane Earl that did the damage. It was the inaccurate predictions from the National Hurricane Center.

From Cape Cod to Maine thousands of would-be vacationers cancelled their hotel reservations, as hurricane warnings were issued for the Cape and tropical storm warnings were posted all along Maine’s coast. Reacting to these warnings local media sprung into action — mighty Earl was on the way! Reporters waited along the beaches from New York to Maine.

Amtrak cancelled service from New York to Boston. Continental Airlines cancelled 60 flights.

The strongest sustained wind on Nantucket Island was 41 miles per hour — just above tropical storm strength of 39 miles per hour. The peak wind gust there was 54 miles per hour — far short of the minimum hurricane force of 74 miles per hour. Rainfall totaled 2 to 4 inches.

In a part of the country accustomed to dealing with Nor’easters, this was just another windy, rainy Friday night. By Saturday morning Earl was gone, along with profit opportunities for hotels and restaurants across southern and eastern New England.

Is the National Hurricane Center guilty of yet another example of manufactured panic by the government that brought you Y2K, West Nile virus, and the bird flu scare? Is there a systemic process in government that tends to blow events and potential events out of proportion?

The Hurricane Center did accurately predict the path of the hurricane as it passed south of New England. It was forecast to pass south of Nantucket Island Friday night as it was weakening to a less potent tropical storm.

If they got the storm track right, why were the other elements of the forecast so bad?

The winds of a hurricane blow counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, making the strongest winds of a hurricane on the storm’s right side — where the forward motion of the hurricane and the winds around the center are generally in the same direction. The opposite effect is realized on the left side of the storm. As Earl was moving to the northeast, the wind on the north side of the storm was blowing opposite to the storm’s forward motion. This has the effect of reducing the winds on the left.

Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Cape Cod and the islands, coastal New Hampshire, and Maine were accurately predicted to be on the weaker side of Earl. But in spite of this, tropical storm warnings (meaning winds of 39 to 73 miles per hour) would hit coastal New Hampshire and Maine as Earl passed well to the south Friday night.

Some hotels at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, lost 80 percent of their reservations when vacationers heard the scary forecasts. Saturday, Sunday, and Labor Day Monday’s weather was spectacular on the coast of Maine, but many vacationers weren’t there to enjoy it.

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