MIT's Kerry Emanuel describes the worst nightmare hurricane that could ever happen -a "hypercane" with winds raging around its center at 500 miles an hour. Water vapor; sea spray and storm debris are spewed into the atmosphere, punching a hole in the stratosphere 20 miles above the Earth's surface; at landfall, its super-gale-force winds would flatten forests and toss boulders with a 60-foot tsunami-like storm surge flooding nearby shores. The water vapor and debris could remain suspended high in the atmosphere for years, disrupting the climate and the ozone layer.
Could this happen? Possibly. But this hypercane scenario is one of Emanuels' computer models. A professor at MIT's atmosphere, oceans and climate program, Emanuel studies the physics of hurricanes, deconstructing their behavior, and digs into their geological past -- all to understand what makes these monster storms tick.
No one knows for sure how hurricanes get started. The ingredients for cooking one up still remain a mystery. A basic recipe: ocean water 80 degrees or warmer, super humid air, and a bunch of storms with thunderheads. Some assembly still require"Hurricanes are accidents of nature," Emanuel says. Hurricanes don't happen by themselves," he continues. "They literally need to be triggered."
To create such a monster storm, parts of the ocean would have to warm up to at least 100 degrees, and only the impact of a large asteroid hitting the tropical ocean or a massive undersea volcano could generate such intense heating. Emanuel and his colleagues theorize that asteroid-triggered hypercanes may have contributed to massive global extinctions millions of years ago.
But let's look closer to home and at our strange attitudes towards the potential danger, especially our post-Katrina world.
According to a survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security, over one third of the inhabitants of high-risk hurricane areas said that if government officials issued a mandatory evacuation due to a major hurricane this season, they would ignore it and stay.
The survey was conducted in eight states--Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas--and only included residents of counties within 20 miles of the coast. The poll included a special sample of the New Orleans metropolitan area.
The top reasons for refusing to leave in an emergency revolve around issues of safety and security. Three-quarters (75%) say their home is well-built and they would be safe there. Over half (56%) feel that roads would be too crowded, and slightly more than one in three (36%) feels that evacuating would be dangerous. One-third (33%) worry that their possessions would be stolen or damaged while one in four (27%) say they would not evacuate because they do not want to leave their pets.
Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health said, "Public officials need to be concerned…officials need to remind people that many homes are vulnerable to major storms. They also need to ensure safe evacuation routes are available and the public is aware of them."
If residents of high-risk hurricane areas did have to evacuate because of a major hurricane, most respondents said they would be concerned about the conditions of evacuation shelters. The biggest worries people have are that shelters would be unsanitary (68%), there wouldn't be enough clean water to drink (66%), the shelter would be too crowded (65%), they would be exposed to sick people (62%), and medical care would be lacking (58%). Based on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—these fears are not unfounded.
The surveys shows that even after Hurricane Katrina, most New Orleans residents (61%) do not know the locations of evacuation shelter if they needed to go to one.
"It is worrisome that New Orleans, the site of one of the most severe hurricanes in U.S. history, has such a large proportion of people who don't know the location of an evacuation center," said Professor Blendon. "An important priority for government and voluntary agencies should be to inform people of the location of shelters well before a storm hits."
Posted by Rebecca Sato with Casey Kazan.
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