September 17, 2013
A storm forecaster’s memories of IsabelBy FRANK ROSENSTEINWaldorf, Md., and Hatteras
and his “home away from home”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)