Even in hindsight, a good call

Published 4:42 pm Saturday, October 3, 2015

What a difference a day can make.

On Wednesday, nearly all of the major computer models used by forecasters to predict the paths of hurricanes showed Hurricane Joaquin — just a barely-organized Category 1 storm as of that morning — lingering in the Bahamas for a day or so and then heading north for a potential direct hit on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Hampton Roads.

By Thursday, the storm had strengthened to Category 4 level on the Saffir-Simpson scale, but projections had changed, nudging the expected path to the east and taking the mid-Atlantic coast out of the cone of likely danger. The “European model” had won out, and during the ensuring days, all of the best models have reached consensus: Joaquin is not likely to make landfall in North America.

Email newsletter signup

Though we all can now breathe a sigh of relief, the dangers were real, and the damage from such a storm would have been catastrophic if Wednesday’s predictions had held.

With days of rainfall preceding the hurricane’s once-expected arrival in Hampton Roads, many residents of the area could not help but remember Hurricane Isabel, which wreaked havoc on much of Virginia and North Carolina when it made landfall as a Category 2 storm in September 2003.

Thousands of trees fell to Isabel, bringing down more than 7,000 spans of power lines, leaving 1.8 million people across the commonwealth without power, according to a Department of Energy assessment at the time. Loss of insured property totaled nearly $1.7 billion, including $925 million in Virginia alone, according to a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration report in 2004. A storm surge reaching nine feet devastated communities along the banks of the James River. At least 10 people in Virginia died as a direct result of the storm.

Isabel, quite simply, is the modern-day yardstick by which hurricane threats are measured in Virginia. In National Weather Service parlance, it was a “reference storm,” one residents use to compare the likely effects of future storms.

Comparing Wednesday’s predictions to that reference storm, emergency planners in Suffolk and throughout Hampton Roads were understandably alarmed, so they set about with recommendations that events on Saturday be canceled. At best, Saturday should have been a day of preparation for the coming storm, they reasoned.

Of course, Saturday turned out to be a day of sunshine and light breezes. But there was too much at stake on Wednesday and even early Thursday to take the risk, and a cursory look at the news from the Bahamas — where Joaquin churned for 36 hours this week, leveling some communities and flooding others — personalizes the risk.

Suffolk officials made the right choice in canceling Saturday’s events. And, much as it pains everyone to miss out on the Peanut Fest parade and the many other events scheduled for one of the biggest Saturdays of the year, Suffolk citizens should hope those officials would do the same thing again, given a similar situation.