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Hurricane alarm too shrill?

The alerts for Hurricane Irene were early, loud and clear. This could be that perfect storm forecasters had been dreading: a Category 4 hurricane perfectly aligned to rake the East Coast from the Carolinas to New England and wreak catastrophic damage on one of the country’s most populous regions.

On Aug. 29, the remnants of Irene moved into Quebec while Tropical Storm Jose and Tropical Depression 12 spun through the Atlantic.

“I am most concerned about the storm surge danger to North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and the rest of the New England coast,” Jeffrey Masters, the Weather Underground’s director of meteorology, warned in a blog two days before Irene’s Aug. 27 landfall at Cape Lookout, N.C. “Irene is capable of inundating portions of the coast under 10 to 15 feet of water to the highest storm surge depths ever recorded. I strongly recommend that all residents of the Mid-Atlantic and New England coast familiarize themselves with their storm surge risk” and evacuate if emergency officials order it.

Operators of coastal marinas in the Northeast and their customers got the message loud and clear. “I suggested that everybody get out, and they did,” says David Reutershan, dockmaster at Danford’s Hotel and Marina in Port Jefferson, N.Y., on eastern Long Island’s north shore. All but two boats left the 75-slip marina for safe harbor, in most cases the storage yard where they haul out each fall. Danford’s has no upland storage.

Reutershan says the marina was ready for Irene when it blew through as a 45-mph storm, far less powerful than forecast. “I think getting everybody off the dock was a great help,” he says.
Dockmaster Jeff Law at Harbor One Marina in Old Saybrook, Conn., says all of his customers evacuated, leaving the 85-slip marina empty. The 35-slip Dering Harbor Marina on Shelter Island, N.Y., also was empty. “We got rid of all our boats and moved the floating docks,” Dering Harbor fuel manager Lee Johnson says.
Burr’s Marina in New London, Conn., which has 150 slips and moorings, reported just five boats at the dock. “Forty-eight hours before the storm, we were hauling boats and putting them in the parking lot,” says Adam Bergamo, a member of the Burr family.
“We were very impressed with how marina operators stepped up to the plate and got their customers to do the right thing,” says Scott Croft, a spokesman for BoatUS. “We had a lot of lead time on this storm.”
The right thing is almost always moving the boat out of its slip, hauling it and securing it on land, according to BoatUS. TowBoatUS Oregon Inlet, N.C., reported more than 500 vessels hauled before Irene arrived and just two post-storm salvages, even with a storm surge of 7 feet.
BoatUS estimates boat damage from Irene at $500 million, $250 million less than Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Croft says coastal marinas in general appeared to heed the warnings and moved boats out of their slips and off their moorings, but marinas on inland lakes and rivers in New York and New England — the Hudson River and Mohawk River valleys, Lake George, Lake Champlain and Lake Winnipesaukee, in particular — seemed less prepared for a major storm. “These are areas that usually don’t get much of a storm system once it gets up-country,” he says.
Irene surprised many inland marina operators and boaters with violent flooding, a result of its size, which measured more than 500 miles across at one point. “I think some people far from the coast and far from the initial landfall got caught off guard,” Croft says. Damage in some of those areas was severe: The Lake George Park Commission estimates that Irene sank or swamped 100 boats on the New York lake.
On Aug. 23, while Irene still was off the Bahamas, BoatUS issued a bulletin alerting boat owners that it appeared the storm was on a track to go right up the East Coast. “Once Irene got on the rail, it stayed there,” Croft says. The bulletin warned those in its path to be ready for the hurricane to intensify to a Category 3 or 4.
The chorus of dire warnings grew louder as the national media joined forecasters in sounding the alarm: An enormous Category 4 hurricane could be taking aim at some 65 million people and poised to cause tens of billions of dollars in damage. It came ashore at the Outer Banks as a Category 1 and in New York as an extra-tropical storm, causing some to ask whether the threat was overblown.
“I’m just worried that down the road with all the hype over Irene and then nothing happening, people might be wary of [forecasters and the media] crying wolf,” dockmaster Reutershan says. “There was so much drama.” He says it was hard to find a television news report that would give just the facts. Eventually he turned down the sound on the television and followed satellite imagery of the storm on his computer.
Croft is sensitive to the allegation that the hurricane was overhyped, but he says that in Irene’s case it was justifiable early on to warn East Coast residents to be ready for that perfect storm.
“It’s a balancing act,” he says. “I don’t want people overreacting,” but all of the models showed Irene going up the East Coast. And as the storm rolled over the Bahamas as a Category 3, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said conditions were right for it to develop into a Category 4 storm. The threat was real.
Masters agrees. Irene could have been far, far worse. As it was, “this storm affected more people than any in U.S. history,” he says.

See related story:

- Inside Hurricane Irene

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.