To hear National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham tell it, the most frightening hurricane of all is one that is on many people’s lips, but doesn’t really exist, yet causes many to let their guard down for life-threatening dangers.
That would be what Graham calls “Hurricane Justa” — as in, “It’s just a Category 1.”
While the opportunity for the public to tour two aircraft that penetrate hurricanes was the centerpiece, calling attention to the dangers posed by any strength of hurricane — either in its coastal effects or as far inland as the Roanoke Valley — was the purpose of Wednesday’s 2019 East Coast Hurricane Awareness tour stop in Roanoke.
People streamed in by the hundreds at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport to get a close look at, and go inside, a U.S. Air Force Reserve WC-130J Hurricane Hunter and a NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft, two of only 12 aircraft in the world authorized to fly into hurricanes.
The military aircraft is flown into hurricanes to collect data on tropical cyclones for imminent forecasts and warnings, while the data collected by the NOAA plane is used more for research and improvement of forecast modeling in the long run.
“We do it because some information we can only get inside the storm,” said Warren Madden, who is chief of a unit within the National Hurricane Center that coordinates military reconnaissance flights into hurricanes. “We put our lives on the line to get the data people need to protect their lives and property.”
Graham said it was no coincidence that the hurricane awareness tour made a stop in Roanoke, given the region’s experience with tropical cyclone-related flooding and his own intent to see the tour, in its 40th year, make more inland stops, such as Roanoke; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Charlotte, North Carolina. The tour, which started in Rhode Island on Monday, concludes Friday in Georgia.
Category 1 hurricanes — the weakest level of five — have caused $103 billion in damage and 175 fatalities in the U.S. during the last decade, Graham said, many of those from inland flooding.
The Roanoke River’s highest flood on record in 1985 and second-highest in 1972 both were caused by the inland effects of “just a” Category 1 storm, Juan in 1985 and Agnes in 1972.
“There is no such thing as a ‘Hurricane Justa,’ ” Graham said. “There’s never going to be a ‘Hurricane Justa.’ ”
Time and time again, officials at the event stressed the flood-related dangers of hurricanes.
“Lots of people conceptualize hurricanes as wind and wind damage,” said Taylor Trogdon, a storm surge specialist with the National Hurricane Center. “It’s water that people really need to be cognizant of.”
Trogdon noted that Hurricane Florence’s storm surge last September extended 100 miles inland to New Bern, North Carolina, channeled up the Neuse River. But it’s a different water danger that was emphasized repeatedly for the Roanoke Valley — inland flooding from heavy rain.
“Hurricanes are not just a coastal problem — there is a lot of flooding here associated with tropical cyclones and their remnants,” said Michael Brennan, a Roanoke native who has risen to be chief of the Hurricane Specialist Unit that leads forecasting within the National Hurricane Center.
“Hurricanes have an enormous amount of moisture wrapped up within them,” said Madden, a former Weather Channel on-camera meteorologist who has flown more than 1,000 hours on hurricane reconnaissance missions himself. “All that moisture tied up in a hurricane, once it makes landfall, something has to happen to it. … You can get literal feet of rain.”
The region’s recent bouts of flooding rain with the remnants of hurricanes Florence and Michael last fall were noted in opening remarks by Roanoke Vice Mayor Joe Cobb. He reminded the audience of the tragedy of the flood of 1985, spawned by remnants of Hurricane Juan, that killed 10 and caused $200 million damage in the valley.
While taking hurricanes seriously even this far inland was the message, the planes were the stars of the show.
The WC-130 Hurricane Hunter is a modified C-130 transport plane that can easily be converted back if needed, said Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa, Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Squadron aircraft commander. It carries a minimum crew of five for hurricane reconnaissance missions, though Ragusa said missions up to 14 hours in duration often require much larger crews, including up to three pilots.
“If you’re the kind that can sleep in an airplane flying through a hurricane, we have a place for you,” Ragusa joked.
Airplanes often fly through winds of hundreds of miles an hour in normal duty, so the winds of a hurricane have less effect on airplane performance than what many expect, Ragusa said. Much as a boat has to alter its movement through currents of water to go the intended direction, so a hurricane hunter plane must in strong winds as it approaches the eye of a hurricane, he said.
Ragusa’s one word to describe the eye of a hurricane was “beautiful” — a place of calm winds and clear skies with the awe-inspiring eye wall circling around it.
Neither the military aircraft nor the WP-3D Orion is mothballed when hurricane season goes on hiatus. Both are involved in training missions throughout the year, as well as other kinds of weather research and monitoring of non-tropical weather systems. The Orion, for instance, is headed to Salina, Kansas, next week to support tornado research.
All of this research is done to make warnings faster, better and more precise.
“Please take it seriously,” Madden said. “We’ve all heard about the little boy that cried wolf. Meteorologists live with the story of the little boy that cried wolf. But sometimes, the wolf really comes.”