East Coast Collisions: The 1999 Atlantic Hurricane Season

by: Cheryl Salerno
Pages: 24-28; January, 2000

For many businesses along the East Coast, the 1999 hurricane season has left an indelible mark. Pick a name: Dennis, Floyd, Gert, Irene. Any one of these might be the culprit, the one storm that proved too much for some companies to bear. And like painful, morning-after tattoos, these names have inspired both regret and resolve in the minds of business professionals from Florida to Maine.

For those that didn't recover, the "should haves" were fleeting, becoming moot points soon after the losses were tallied. But for many who made it through what some have deemed the "Year of the Flood," hard lessons have become planning initiatives. And recovery strategies have become policies.

But was the hurricane season of 1999 really as bad as it seemed? Well, it depends on your point of reference. In terms of recent history, the Atlantic hurricane season was above average for the second consecutive year. When the season officially closed on November 30th, there were a total of 12 named storms, 8 of which became hurricanes, 5 of which became intense hurricanes (category 3 or greater). This compares with a historical average of 9.3 named storms, 5.8 hurricanes, and 2.2 intense hurricanes.

August turned out to be the busiest month, featuring four named storms. September and October had three each. June had one, and November had one. Although some of the storms were responsible for tremendous destruction, economic losses, and fatalities, the situation could have been a lot worse. Many of the storms that formed actually remained out to sea, not impacting the US mainland.

Was It as Bad as It Seemed?

Weather experts maintain that the flooding in 1999 actually pales in comparison with some hurricane-related flooding of the past. According to Michael Schlacter, Chief Meteorologist at Weather 2000 (New York, NY), the following storms all brought worse overall flood devastation than any storm this season.

* September 1938: Hurricane of '38

Minor and moderate flooding from previous synoptic storms set the stage for the Hurricane of '38. With only 6 inches, the hurricane tipped the scales to major flooding. The combination of the floods and hurricane resulted in the loss of approximately 600 lives. Property damage was estimated to exceed 400 million dollars.

* August 1955: The Floods of Hurricane Connie & Diane

In little over a week, two hurricanes passed by Southern New England in August 1955, producing major flooding over much of the region. Hurricane Connie produced generally 4 to 6 inches of rainfall over southern New England on August 11 and 12. Hurricane Diane came a week later, with rainfall totals ranging up to nearly 20 inches over a two-day period.

* June 1972: Hurricane (Tropical Storm) Agnes

The most destructive, widespread flooding to occur in the eastern United States occurred in June 1972 as a result of Hurricane Agnes. Unlike some other flood-producing hurricanes in the northeast, Agnes was not a particularly strong hurricane. In fact, most of its devastation occurred well after it had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

The magnitude of flooding brought by such storms is that which weather experts reflect on with a kind of reverence. But rainfall statistics are only one way to measure the fortitude of a hurricane. The year 1992, for example, went down in the record books as a very "quiet" overall season, yet it will be remembered forever by those unfortunate enough to have been caught in the path of Hurricane Andrew, which struck land and was catastrophic.

The 1999 hurricane season will likewise be recalled vividly by those hit the hardest. And for many home- and business-owners along the East Coast, one name in particular will stand out from the others: Floyd.

The Wrath of Floyd

If we were indeed to call this the Year of the Flood, then Floyd would undoubtedly be awarded 1999's "Best Storm in a Series." The category 4 hurricane brought flooding rains, high winds, and rough seas along a good portion of the Atlantic seaboard from the 14th through the 18th of September.

The eastern Carolinas seemed to be an especially attractive landing ground for many of the yearís wickedest storms, and Floyd had a particular fancy for North Carolina, where stream and river flooding produced some of the worst conditions ever seen. From there, the storm traveled northeast into New Jersey, inflicting crippling blows to those regions in its path, finally exiting the United States through Maine.

Ten states were declared major disaster areas as a result of Floyd, including Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. Floodingóparticularly in-land floodingócaused most of the major problems across these regions, and at least 75 deaths have been reported to date. Damages were estimated to be $1.6 billion in Pitt County, NC, alone; and total storm damages might surpass the $6 billion caused by Hurricane Fran in 1996.

Although Hurricane Floyd reached category 4 intensity in the Bahamas, it weakened to category 2 intensity at landfall in North Carolina. Floyd's large size was a greater problem than its winds, as the heavy rainfall covered a larger area and lasted longer than with a typical category 2 hurricane. Approximately 2.6 million people evacuated their homes in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, making it the largest peacetime evacuation in US history.

There were several reports from the Bahamas area northward of wave heights exceeding 50 feet. The maximum storm surge was estimated to be 10.3 feet on Masonborough Island in New Hanover County, NC.

But while flooding brought by the 1999 hurricane season was severe in many regions along the East Coast, some states fared better than others. In Maryland, for example, Hurricane Floyd caused flooding in 11 out of 23 counties in the State; however, according to Carol Thiel, Hurricane Planner for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, the impact was not as severe as in other years.

"Historically, Maryland has been impacted by high winds, significant rainfall, and storm surge from hurricanes and tropical storms approximately every two to three years," said Thiel. "In some years, the entire state is impacted. The eastern shore of the state experiences flooding from wind-driven water in the form of storm surge and rainfall, while the western shore experiences flooding from excessive rainfall causing streams and rivers to overflow."

Thiel pointed out that luck might not have been the only reason for Marylandís good fortune. "From Marylandís perspective, effective emergency plans and the ability of local jurisdictions to execute them had a significant impact," she stated. "Also important were mitigation efforts in communities where floods had previously caused damage."

Frightening Predictions

In terms of planning, most weather experts agree that emergency management procedures have improved gradually over the past 20 years. Hurricane awareness as well as advisory technologies have also evolved. But, according to Schlacter, there is still a troubling forecast ahead for those residing in the "coastal zone" of the US mainland, from the tip of Texas to the tip of Maine.

"Although some locations have been impacted in the recent past, many major population centers have either never been impacted directly from a hurricane, or were impacted decades ago," explained Schlacter. "Thus, although education is high, many people have been lulled into a false sense of security and are reluctant to take proper precautionary measures for their personal and business interests."

According to many weather analysts, climate research indicates a progression toward a particularly active era of tropical storm formation in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. William Gray, one of the nationís leading authorities on hurricanes, recently speculated that 2000, though a bit milder than 1999, would still bring a "reasonably active" hurricane season. The real trouble, according to Gray, will come in subsequent years, when the East Coast will likely suffer "hurricane damage like we have not previously seen before." Schlacter also predicted more frequent and intense hurricanes during the first part of the 21st century.

Reality Check

In terms of business continuity planning, the translation is simple: "It can happen here." According to Dr. Gray, the greatest lessons that emerged from the 1999 hurricane season came from the inefficiencies within many state emergency plansóparticularly, in terms of evacuation. For those states where evacuation procedures were implemented, most proved rather unsuccessful. According to industry experts, many evacuation plans were simply outdated and did not account for the enormous number of coastal residents that have emerged in recent decades.

Indeed, the 1999 hurricane season tested the efficiency of many planning initiatives, not only on a statewide level, but on a national level as well. For Maryland, Hurricane Floyd turned out to be not just a reminder of the stateís vulnerability to East Coast storms, it was actually a valuable catalyst for change.

"Three of the 11 counties that were declared eligible for Individual Assistance in September due to Hurricane Floyd have since been named the Stateís second Project Impact Community by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)," remarked Thiel. "Calvert, Charles, and St. Maryís Counties belong to the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland, which will coordinate the Project Impact program for the region. The initiatives funded under Project Impact are directed at reducing vulnerability to hurricanes and floods, as well as other natural and man-made hazards."

Sandy Eslinger, Coastal Hazards Specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationís (NOAA's) Coastal Services Center, recently addressed the topic of hazard mitigation strategies in an on-line interactive presentation hosted by the Emergency Information Infrastructure Partnership (EIIP). One of the ways in which coastal communities can brace themselves for the coming hurricane seasons, according to Eslinger, is through use of a new community vulnerability assessment tool, which has been developed by NOAA's Coastal Services Center in partnership with New Hanover County, North Carolina.

The tool itself is a CD-ROM, which steps the user through a process of analyzing physical, social, economic, and environmental vulnerability at the community level. The foundation for the methodology was established by the Heinz Panel on Risk, Vulnerability, and the True Cost of Hazards (1999). This panel of multidisciplinary experts conducted a study to identify the full range of disaster costs and found that many disaster costs go far beyond government assistance and insured losses.

Many of the things that cause individuals and communities to suffer great losses can be traced to social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities. According to Eslinger, the new assessment tool will be especially effective for "local emergency managers, state resource managers (coastal programs), and others who are embarking on long-range planning projects."

Regarding the recent destruction brought by the 1999 hurricane season and that anticipated in future seasons, Eslinger had this to say: "There is evidence to support the fact that we are entering a long-term trend of increased hurricane activity. I am personally very concerned about the status of hurricane evacuation plans. Coastal communities continue to grow rapidly and, with increased media attention, more people are trying to evacuate when storms are brewing.

"Most evacuation plans are developed to accommodate evacuees from storm surge areas," she explained. "Many large storms mean more people will leave from the threat of high winds and inland flood damage. It has the potential for nightmares on our roads in the future."

Insights in the Aftermath

So, is it an exaggeration to refer to the 1999 Atlantic hurricane season as the Year of the Flood? Not if you live in North Carolina.

"Nothing since the Civil War has been as destructive to families here," commented H. David Bruton, the state's Secretary of Health and Human Services. "The recovery process will be much longer than the water-going-down process."

For those in the business of contingency planning, 1999 was a year that underscored their purpose with a rather bold stroke. If damages brought by such storms as Gert and Floyd will indeed prove minor compared with hurricanes yet to hit the Atlantic seaboard in coming years, business continuity planning has never been more important for companies in these regions. To that end, the hurricanes of '99, which brought so much destruction to East Coast businesses, might prove to be the very things that save them in years to come.

The challenge for planners remains the same: learn from past events; stay informed of weather-related trends; recognize weaknesses in current plans; and, most importantly, keep business continuity planning a company-wide priority.

Copyright ©2000, Witter Publishing Corporation