tampabay.com

How Ernesto became such an enigma

By TAMARA LUSH
Published August 31, 2006


MIAMI - Forecasters had a hard time figuring out how bad Ernesto would be.

At one point, they said it could strike Florida as a Category 3 hurricane with winds of up to 130 mph. Instead, Ernesto purred into South Florida with the intensity of a routine summer thunderstorm.

On Wednesday, National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield discussed Ernesto, the trouble forecasters had and what the future holds.

Why was Ernesto's strength so difficult to forecast?

"This was a hurricane at one time, and it was impacted by the mountains of Haiti and over eastern Cuba. ...The intensity forecasting is always difficult and then you include land masses such as Cuba, and it gets even more complicated. The computer models are not sophisticated enough to handle these things. I honestly can't tell you exactly why this didn't strengthen. ... When it impacted the land masses of Haiti and Cuba, at least our best guess was that the inner core that stayed over Cuba as long as it did it really disintegrated. When it finally came off the north coast of Cuba, it was never able to get that core re-established.

What tools do you need for a more accurate forecast?

"I'm very thankful for the support we have gotten for the hurricane program. If you count the money for satellites, aircraft and computers and that sort of thing, we're doing pretty well. ... My personal opinion is that I wish we had a dedicated hurricane modeling group that was focused on this and there's discussion of that going on and that may eventually happen. There are people working on this and it's very, very difficult and we've got a long way to go. We're not ever going to give you a perfect forecast."

Are you worried that people will become complacent after experiencing a weaker than predicted storm?

"I do worry about that. It's difficult to get people's attention for a weak system. The studies I'm familiar with show that most people respond to what their local officials tell them to do. And I have no problems whatsoever with Monroe and Miami-Dade and Broward counties closing the schools. I will never criticize the local officials and emergency managers when they make those tough decisions."

What will Ernesto do over the next few days?

"The center, which is not very strong at all, is going to come off the coast this evening, and by Thursday evening, be in the Carolinas. The fact that the center is going to remain over land all day today, it's not going to strengthen. When it comes out, again, if that center is even somewhat intact, there's certainly a chance it will strengthen some, but we've backed off the intensity forecast. But we do have a tropical storm warning up from Cape Fear southward to Sebastian Inlet, Fla."