Milestones:  Remembering hurricanes Emily and Isabel
September 17, 2013

 A storm forecaster’s memories of Isabel
and his “home away from home”


By FRANK ROSENSTEIN
Waldorf, Md., and Hatteras


I first came to Hatteras for an extended time to fish for cobia in 1981. Cobia were caught and Hatteras caught me. I couldn’t wait to return and started frequent trips through the 1980s, especially after getting offshore fever. We came down as often as every three weeks, whenever I could, and by 1994, I kept my boat there year-round. By 2000, we bought place at Durants Station, and Hatteras was our home away from home, as it is for many.

Paralleling this time I started working for the National Weather Service and was a forecaster at the Washington Forecast Office from 1980 to 1989. We had responsibility for all of Maryland and Virginia and the adjacent coastal waters and high seas forecasting the Atlantic. We dealt with several serious tropical storms in that time including Gloria and Hugo.

By 1989 I had transferred to what was the National Meteorological Center, a national forecast and guidance center. By 1994, I was assigned as a medium-range forecaster and continued that until I retired in 2012. We were responsible for all of the U.S. and most of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans from day 3 though day 7 of the forecast period. This included all tropical systems in the eastern Pacific and all Atlantic ones with routine daily co-ordination with the National Hurricane Center.

Our responsibility was the days 4-5 forecast for these systems and, in recent years, the days 6-7 forecast. Sometimes there were as many as five storms to deal with at one time. It could be very tedious and stressful. In average years we dealt with more than 20 systems. Most were routine oceanic storms, not going much of anywhere, but some were not.

Isabel right from the beginning was different.

Isabel started off in the far eastern Atlantic and was, right from the beginning, one of the strongest and well-behaved west tracking storms that we had seen. It was one of the easiest tropical systems to forecast that I had or have seen. There was nothing to stop it from coming straight west and then north of west. All of the model guidance was close together.

By the time it was approaching the Lesser Antilles and then the lower Bahamas, strong upper and lower level ridging was forecast to build over the northeast U.S. and adjacent Atlantic. This was an ominous sign that Isabel would get close in before recurving or maybe not recurve at all. Each succeeding run of the models had the storm getting closer and closer.

About a week out it was clear to me that Isabel would strongly affect the East Coast but the actual landfall and location were still questionable. Within several days of the landfall, the models showed a strike potential from as far south as South Carolina to New Jersey, which is a large area, but considering the angle of approach, it was reasonable to worry about the whole area.   

Models were showing the development of a massive dome of high pressure to the north of the Isabel approach, which would greatly expand and enhance the wind field and keep up a very large area of high seas. Within a couple days of landfall, it was noted by marine meteorologists just down the hall from me running a wave program that the model they were using was coming up with 50 foot seas near Cape Hatteras and even in the Hatteras Bight.

These were incredible sea heights, and even if way over done, the forecast still implied tremendous seas that would come onshore on Hatteras Island, especially south of the Cape. I remember calling Judy Hardison, who at the time managed Durant Station, and told her they should leave and not ride this one out. It was not going to be the usual Hatteras hurricane. Judy and her husband ended up clinging to a tree in flood waters as their house was destroyed.

On the way home during the afternoon of Sept. 17, I received a call from Art Kirchner who was docked beside me at Teach’s Lair Marina. He asked what was going to happen. I told him we were going to get hit hard and that a new inlet somewhere was very possible.

"What about the boats?" he asked.

“I don’t know. There's nothing we can do," I replied.

I remember specifically coming in early to work on the 18th. My normal shift started at 5 a.m. The early morning NHC conference call between the various forecast offices and centers occurred near that time with the first aircraft recon reports as Isabel approached.

Interestingly, the aircraft did not find any hurricane force winds at any level that morning. There was some brief conversation and thought of downgrading Isabel to a tropical storm because of the lack of hurricane force winds. Then the idea was dropped. Later observations during the day reported hurricane force winds. But it was the seas that mattered, regardless of whether the winds dropped a bit or not.

It should be noted that had hurricane Emily in 1993 had not made a last minute turn to the right, it may very well have had the same impact that Isabel did 10 years later. 

We should not see one like this again for a long time statistically as it's hard to get a set up of both a very strong tropical system and the uncommon upstream atmospheric pattern that allowed it to strike. But then again it could within the next 10 or 20 years or next year. Or even this year. It’s not too late yet. The worst Atlantic hurricane to affect the East Coast came in mid-October -- Hazel in 1954.  

(Editor’s note:  Frank Rosenstein’s condo was destroyed, as was all of Durants Station.  However, the complex was rebuilt, and he still spends time on Hatteras.)   

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