Finding Clues to Future Hurricanes in Distant Past

May 31, 2005

Chris Landsea was only six months old in September 1965 when Hurricane Betsy blew through South Florida. Landsea and his parents had only recently moved from Illinois to Miami, and he wonders if the hurricane had a powerful influence on his future.

"Perhaps that portended my interest in hurricanes," he said.

As he reaches his 40th birthday, Landsea is now a meteorologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division in Miami. He's become an authority on the complexities of the powerful storms that rage across the oceans every summer and sometimes inflict catastrophic devastation when they come ashore.

Landsea also has seen sights that few people will ever see—the interiors of some of the most powerful hurricanes that have ever formed. As a graduate student at Colorado State University, Landsea was aboard a "hurricane hunter" aircraft that flew into the eye of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. The flight into Gilbert—the most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Basin—was Landsea's first look at the heart of a monster hurricane, and it left a powerful impression on him.

Landsea saw the so-called "stadium effect" of a hurricane's eye, caused by storm clouds cascading backward from the center so they look like seats in a stadium. He saw a blue sky above, and below were "great white pancakes" caused by giant waves crashing into each other.

"It's so unlike anything else on Earth. You could almost consider yourself to be on another planet," he said.

The powerful hurricane inflicted massive damage when it made landfall on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.

Hurricane Andrew

Landsea's experiences with hurricanes became less theoretical and much more personal in 1992, however, when Hurricane Andrew tore through southern Dade County, Florida.

"I think my interest in hurricanes was academic until Andrew," Landsea said. "Andrew destroyed the neighborhood I grew up in. My parents' house lost one-third of its roof."

He went to Florida to help his parents with the cleanup.

"I was just shocked at the damage," he said. "I couldn't even recognize my own neighborhood. Trees were gone, denuded. Buildings were gone. It was amazing to see the power of what a hurricane could do."

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