In 1870, the first hurricane warning system was set up as part of the Army Signal Service. Five years later, Father Benito Vines, a meteorologist and priest, opened a weather bureau in Havana, Cuba. He took eyewitness reports from weather observers in the West Indies, and for 18 years telegraphed warnings of approaching hurricanes.
In 1896, a hurricane caused much damage in the eastern United States, killing 114 and causing $7 million in damage. The public cried out, leading Congress to establish a U.S. Hurricane Warning Service, with its headquarters in Havana.
Starting in the 20th century, scientists began looking for ways to study and understand hurricanes. In 1935, researchers at Harvard University developed a radiometeorograph, which measured air pressure, temperature, and humidity. A balloon carried it 95,000 feet into the air, where it took measurements and then sent them back to earth.
In 1943, a technique was created to judge a hurricane’s traveling speed, the speed of interior winds, and also how wide an area it covered. That year, Major Joseph B. Duckworth, a Texas flying instructor for the Army Air Corps, tried to see if it could fly through a hurricane on instruments. He and navigator Ralph O’Hair flew a training plane into a hurricane moving toward Galveston.
Their aircraft was bumped, jolted, and shaken up and down as they flew, but still managed to fly to the calm eye. When they tried to escape out of the back side of the eye, however, they were flipped over and spun around. Duckworth managed to swing the plane upright, and the two flew back to the base.
Duckworth’s daring experiment led others to build special weather planes to penetrate a hurricane’s walls. They became known as Hurricane Hunters, and these special air force planes patrol the oceans looking for potential hurricanes and typhoons to investigate. They sometime stay airborne for as long as 14 hours, flying all around and into storms. These brave people determine the location, wind speeds, size, air pressure, cloud water content, direction, and traveling speeds of hurricanes, and then radio this information back to weather stations and the National Hurricane Center (www.nhc.noaa.gov) in Florida.
Hurricanes are also explored by “flying laboratories” from the NOAA’s Miami Aircraft Operations Center. Planes drop radio-transmitter-equipped balloons into the storms, which then send back continual information to weather centers.
The National Hurricane Center gets its earliest hurricane warnings from orbiting weather satellites, which have sent back pictures of cloud covers since 1960. The images they collect go back to the Satellite Center, a branch of the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA). They usually show dark clouds moving in spirals, which help spotlight developing hurricanes and their locations. It was one of these satellites that first discovered 1961’s Hurricane Carla, giving enough warning for many people to evacuate.
Warning is also provided by the National Meteorological Center. Navy and air force weather planes and ships send in reports, which are entered into computers and studied. SKYWARN, a network of private individuals who observe the weather, can also call in to the National Weather Service with storm sightings.
When potentially dangerous cloud formations move close enough, a Hurricane Hunter plane is usually sent up to explore around, and also to verify that the clouds are really forming a threatening hurricane. The National Hurricane Center will then give the storm a name and notify radio and TV stations. Hurricane Hunters keep flying into the storm to monitor it. Every six hours, the center issues “Hurricane Hotline” recorded messages, describing the storm’s location, speed, direction, and tidal effects.
Many organizations, like ESSA’s Coast and Geodetic Survey stations, also keep an eye on coastal tides. Higher waves can indicate how powerful the water force will be if the hurricane moves onto land. Hurricanes are monitored by radar once they are within 200 miles of a coastal area.
Scientists at the National Hurricane Center are constantly analyzing all incoming data, trying to estimate when and where the force will strike, how strong it will be, and how long it will last. While the storm is still at sea, the center issues a hurricane watch for all areas at risk. However, once the hurricane heads toward shore, it changes to a hurricane warning. Hurricane warnings mean that the storm may hit within 24 hours. Those in the region are advised to prepare to escape to higher ground, protect their homes, or evacuate. The average hurricane warning provides 12 to 16 hours advance notice, but sometimes only a 6-hour warning is given.
When there is indication that a hurricane may cause flooding (link to Floods sectin), a flash flood watch is also issued. If possibility of flooding is very large, the alert becomes a flash flood warning. The center only stops issuing all emergency warnings when a hurricane has lost its power.
The National Hurricane Center has been right 85% of the time in 18-hour advance warnings. Today’s hurricane death toll, too, has dropped steadily, most likely due to improved tracking and warning systems. In 1935, a Florida Keys hurricane took more than 400 lives. Twenty-five years later, nine times as many people lived in the area, but 1960 Hurricane Donna only took 3 lives.
We also keep learning more through the National Hurricane Research Project, which began in 1955 between the Weather Bureau and several universities. Together, tracking systems and further research will continue to provide life-saving warnings against hurricanes.
The casual observer can also learn what to look for in detecting a hurricane. The first signs are usually rooster tails - long, thin clouds curving up from the horizon that tell where the hurricane is coming from. These will grow more numerous until they cover the sky. Then, black clouds begin moving overhead.
The full hurricane can usually be seen rising above the horizon, turning dirty white, gray, and then black. Winds will become stronger and stronger, filling the air with salty mist. Ocean waves rise and crash with great power. The entire sky will turn black and lightning flashes. Before you know it, the hurricane is upon you.