Threat of Chantal Dissipates. Or Does It? Ever? (A Recipe for Letting Your Guard Down)

Starting as early as last weekend, forecasters were predicting the potential for a severe impact from what are now the remnants of tropical storm Chantal.  One ‘news’ source even predicted a “Katrina like path” – with all that implies – despite the fact that the vast majority of the more than 20 hurricane models kept the storm out in the Atlantic and, at most, a minor/medium threat to the East Coast.

As a business continuity professional and a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast, storms like Chantal really bug me.  It’s not early in the season but so far – so far – the season hasn’t panned out to be the blockbuster that was predicted a few months ago.  Which means that, relevant to the fact that there have only been three named storms, it’s still psychologically early in a season which might turn brutal.  And that in turn is a brutal setup for the mindset of people in general and for preparedness professionals specifically  because we still have a long way to go before the end of the 2013 Atlantic tropical storm season.

You don’t have to go too far back to remember seasons that were late-bloomers but still had quite an impact on far too many victims.  1998 didn’t see a named cyclone until July 27th but that season produced Mitch, the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history with an estimate of more than 20,000 casualties.

Having experienced several earthquakes, too many floods to count and a number of severe tropical storms and hurricanes, I remember what it meant to be caught off guard.  Alicia in ’83 (which didn’t make landfall until the middle of August despite being the A-storm, i.e., the first one) started out as a very small cluster of thunderstorms off the coast of Louisiana and made landfall just three days later as a category 3 hurricane which did enough damage to Houston that the name Alicia was retired by the World Meteorological Organization.  (I made a lot of money with a chainsaw clearing downed limbs in the two weeks after the storm but I don’t remember it being worth the many nights spent trying to sleep without air conditioning when the lows were in 80s.)

Another example was the very early (first week of June) tropical storm Allison in 2001 which developed a crush on the upper Texas Gulf Coast and refused to leave.  After four days of meandering in more or less the same position with the center of the storm over land, it generated enough rainfall that the Houston area reached absolute saturation.  Up to that point, the never-ending rain had just been a nuisance but at some point overnight on Friday, June 8th, there simply nowhere left for the flood water to go. The fact that it didn’t make landfall and move on out of the area resulted in enough flooding damage that it remains the only tropical storm to have its name retired by the WMO and it caused more than $2 billion in damage just to the Texas Medical Center.  The fact that it was ‘just’ a tropical storm resulted in a classic example of millions of people and thousands of businesses getting caught off-guard.

The real damage that Chantal will cause will happen weeks or months from now when all anyone remembers about this hurricane season is that it was a dud.  Until it fires up and we get caught off-guard.

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Allison flooding a section of U.S. 59 just southwest of downtown Houston. Photos: Fred Rogers

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