WASHINGTON. I spend six months out of every year checking weatherunderground.com for reports of meteorological disturbances in the east Atlantic. Those annoying low-pressure systems that begin their early lives as humid mists rising off West Africa’s Cape Verde Islands.
The storms they birth sweep westward on winds that skirt the equator on their way to the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands. That’s when they pick up steam and turn into the beasts that threaten my side of the world in Florida.
What alarmed me most about this year’s hurricane season was how quietly it began.
The quieter the start, the louder the finale. I expected something like Dorian to threaten the Sunshine State this season. I just thought she would manifest sometime in October. Like Hurricane Wilma did in 2005.
Early tracking maps showed Dorian angling southward and steering west into Cuba. Her mountainous terrain traditionally disrupts a storm’s organized center of circulation – the dreaded eyewall – draining it of energy and diminishing it to a tropical storm.
But if a storm steers too far south, edging under Cuba and emerging northwest through the Yucatan Channel, expect a monster. The shallow waters there are warmer than the Caribbean or Gulf.
That’s where Hurricane Wilma turned into an atrocious Category 5, slamming into the Yucatan Peninsula before bumping against a pressure system that forced her ninety-degrees east to collide as a Category 3 with Florida.
As of this writing, the National Hurricane Center says Dorian’s wind field has expanded 40 miles beyond its eyewall.
But the storm’s off-shore track (if it holds) should spare Florida’s northern counties from the storm’s fiercest 180-mile-an-hour sustained winds. But they still face “hurricane force” gusts and a storm surge inundation along the coast of up to 4 feet.
And it’s disconcerting this monster is moving at an unhurried 6-miles-per-hour, torturing its victims with slow cruelty.
Meanwhile, I have grown to detest the news coverage of hurricanes.
Local television stations, as well as national networks like the Weather Channel, give storm updates in tones bordering on breathless panic. And they interview meteorologists who speculate endlessly about worst-case-scenarios.
Television, after all, is about ratings, which translates into advertising dollars. The more sensational the coverage, the higher the ratings.
In short, they terrify rather than inform. So, in times like these, I go to the National Hurricane Center for the latest storm track and advisories specific to my area.
One man’s hurricane, another man’s treasure
But there are others, far less repulsive, who delight at the prospect of a major storm skirting our shores: those small-time treasure hunters armed with metal detectors or simple good luck.
In 2004, hurricanes Frances and Jeanne made landfall near Stuart, Florida. Around 43 miles north of President Trump’s lavish Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach. These storms were separated by less than two weeks.
Joel Ruth, a marine archaeologist, was on a post-storm walk along the shore when he noticed a glint in the sand ahead. Storm erosion had unearthed 180 gleaming Spanish silver coins – pieces of eight – dating from around 1715.
That year 12 Spanish treasure ships sank after confronting, you guessed it, a hurricane off the Florida coast.
The find earned Ruth a tidy $40,000. Tons of such treasure awaits discovery off the “Treasure Coast.” It sits in watery graves that attest to the truth of the old Spanish proverb:
“Worse things happen at sea.”
Top Image: Hurricane Dorian. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.