Carroll County Times
Carroll County

Hurricane author talks coastal storms with tropical Atlantic season approaching

During Superstorm Sandy in October, wind gusts exceeded 60 mph and record-low barometric pressure readings were recorded in Carroll.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene delivered tropical storm force gusts to the region. Remnants from Tropical Storm Lee dropped 2 to 3 inches of rain in the county and prompted flooding and road closures throughout the region.

It's been an eventful two years for the mid-Atlantic. And yet for the East Coast as a whole, it's been an unusually docile period for land-falling hurricanes.

Richard Schwartz, an Alexandria, Va., resident and the author of "Hurricanes and the Middle Atlantic States," discussed with the Times his memories of Sandy, the recent tropical storm and hurricane formation trends and his thoughts on the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season, which begins Saturday.

Q: Is this an active period for hurricane activity in the Atlantic?

A: We've been in an active cycle since 1995, and those last about 25 to 30 years. So we're in it. But there's also, within the cycles, really active series of years. Those are the years when we get most of our destructive hurricanes. Those series last 3 to 6 years. They are the ones to watch out for.

Q: How will you remember Superstorm Sandy?

A: Sandy, to put it in perspective, was unprecedented to the Mid-Atlantic region during at least the last 400 years. There were several aspects of that storm that we have not seen. It was among the 10 tropical systems to make its landfall in New Jersey in the last 400 years. There were other unique aspects: a low barometric pressure so far north and the unique track it followed for a late-October hurricane.

Q: Sandy was a historic storm for New Jersey in a lot of ways, but don't you think we were spared here mostly?

A: In a lot of ways, Carroll County got lucky. It was on the weaker side of the storm. Had Sandy followed 200 miles farther south, [had] it followed a track similar to the legendary hurricane of 1933, you'd still be cleaning up the mess.

Q: People will remember Irene and Sandy, but neither one of them was considered a major hurricane at landfall. Hasn't it been quite some time since a major hurricane made landfall north of Florida?

A: Yes, you are right. There hasn't been a major category 3 hurricane or stronger that has made landfall north of Florida since [Hurricane Fran] in 1996. But you know other than those two landfalls with Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, there haven't been any hurricanes to make landfall anywhere on the East Coast since 2005. Given the fact that since 2005 there have been more than 100 named tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic basin, that's incredible.

Q: Particularly since we are in an active pattern. Any indication that could change?

A: I was at the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans in March and I talked to Dr. Bill Gray, who is famous for his hurricane forecasts. He called it a miracle that there hasn't been more land-falling hurricane activity [since 2000], particularly since 2005.

Q: Isn't the East Coast of Florida long overdue for a landfalling storm?

A: Well, the last hurricane to make landfall along Florida's East Coast was Katrina in 2005. At that point, it was a category one hurricane and would go on to get much stronger.

Q: Bizarre stretch, isn't it?

A: Yep, and keep in mind that Sandy was the most intense hurricane to make landfall in New Jersey in the last 400 years as far as the barometric pressure goes.

Q: Irene and Sandy were indirect blows to Maryland's Eastern Shore. Maryland is protected by North Carolina's Outer Banks to the south. Is it rare to have a hurricane that would make landfall along Maryland's Eastern Shore?

A: A few tropical storms have done that in the last 400 years, but to my knowledge no hurricanes have made their initial direct landfall on Maryland's east coast.

Q: We can sure get indirect hits, though, right?

A: You can get a storm like Hurricane Hazel in 1954, that's hurricane enough, even though it made landfall in North Carolina. Just because you don't get a direct landfall in Maryland doesn't mean you can't get rain and high winds too.

Q: Isn't Hurricane Hazel the Mid-Atlantic storm that all others should be compared to?

A: For Reagan-National Airport, Hazel still holds the record for sustained winds in highest gusts. National Airport had a sustained winds of 78 mph and gusts of 98 mph. That's still the record. That's courtesy of Hazel.

Q: So that's the litmus test for all mid-Atlantic storms?

A: It is for winds. For rainfall type of events, probably it's Hurricane Agnes [in 1972]. But winds, definitely Hazel.

Q: Do you think climate change, going forward, could affect tropical cyclone formation?

A: In the last two years, that is already happening. If you take other events like those historic winter snows in 2009-10, we're seeing wacky weather all right. Hurricanes are joining the club, as far as the Atlantic is concerned.