for National Geographic News
Meteorologists are still examining the data from Hurricane Charley, but the killer storm that slammed into Florida on August 13 made two things clear: Hurricanes can still surprise forecasters, and the rest of the 2004 hurricane season probably is going to be quite active.
Meteorologists expected Hurricane Charley to develop into a major hurricane and come ashore on Florida's west coast at or near Tampa Bay. Residents from Tampa southward to the Florida Keys were warned that the storm posed a serious threat to them. That warning included Punta Gorda, where the storm struck last Friday afternoon.
But Hurricane Charley intensified at an astonishing rate just a few hours before making landfall, and its eye wobbled off its forecast track and smashed ashore about 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Tampa, killing at least 21.
Charley became the most powerful hurricane to strike the United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It will probably be ranked among the 20 most powerful hurricanes to hit the U.S. since 1900.
The fact that the hurricane did not make landfall exactly where it was predicted to come ashore drew some criticism of forecasters. But a meteorologist who was watching Hurricane Charley's every move noted a touch of irony in the predictions for this storm.
The very accurate forecasts in September 2003 for Hurricane Isabel's landfall in North Carolina may have set up some unrealistic expectations for forecasters trying to anticipate Hurricane Charley's path after it formed in the Caribbean Sea and crossed Cuba as a Category Two storm on August 12.
"Obviously, we were happy about our performance in Isabel, and we want every forecast to be perfect," said James Franklin, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, who was one of the forecasters working on Hurricane Charley. "But given where we are, in terms of our understanding and the data available, that just isn't realistic. We may have raised expectations too much with that very publicized Isabel landfall."
Meteorologist Steve Lyons of the Weather Channel said all of the factors that aided Hurricane Charley's rapid intensificationincluding very warm water in the Gulf of Mexico and minimal upper-level winds (known as wind shear) that would have hindered its developmentwere in place soon after the sun came up on August 13.
The storm raced up the Saffir-Simpson scale as it moved parallel to the west coast of Florida. The scale rates hurricanes from Category One to Category Five according to their wind speeds and destructive potentialWhen a hurricane achieves winds of 111 miles an hour (178 kilometers an hour), it is classed as Category Three on the scale and is considered a major hurricane.
At 11 a.m. on August 13, Hurricane Charley was rated a Category Two, meaning that it had winds between 96 and 110 miles an hour (154 to 177 kilometers an hour). By 4 p.m. that same day, the winds around the storm's eye had reached 145 miles an hour (233 kilometers an hour), making it a Category Four storm.
Hurricane Charley may have made the jump from Category Three to Category Four in only one hour. "I suspect this isn't a record (for intensification), but it's certainly up there," Franklin said.
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