Ian and Charley, a tale of two hurricanes

Published 6:47 pm Saturday, October 1, 2022

Skip Rigney

The same weather system that brought us a week of gorgeous autumn weather helped steer powerful Hurricane Ian away from us and into southwest Florida bringing homelessness and heartache to thousands and headaches for many more.

A southward dip of the high altitude jet stream pushed a surface cold front across the north-central Gulf Coast this past Monday. Behind the front at ground level, a sprawling high pressure system built southward all the way from Canada into the northern and western Gulf of Mexico.

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The surface high pressure system, along with high-altitude jet stream winds blowing from the west, effectively blocked Ian from making any westward progress once it crossed Cuba and entered the southeastern Gulf. Instead Ian headed northward and then north-northeastward, intensified, and grew in size.

Ian smashed across the southwest Florida coast on Wednesday with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour, making it a Category 4 hurricane. The eye of the storm crossed the coastline at very nearly the same place where Category 4 Hurricane Charley did in 2004.

Yet, although their maximum winds were the same, Charley and Ian were very different hurricanes. Charley was a freakishly small storm with sustained winds of greater than 75 mph extending only 25 miles from the center of the eye. Ian’s hurricane-force winds extended out to double that distance. Ian crept northward at a mere 9 mph, while Charley raced across the coast at 22 mph.

So, Ian’s high winds lingered longer and over a much broader area than Charley’s, causing more structural and tree damage. The same two factors combined with a shallow, gently sloping offshore seafloor, resulting in a huge pile up of seawater ahead of the storm in the area of onshore winds to the right of the landfall point in a way that Charely did not 18 years ago. The consequence was a devastating storm surge south of where Ian’s center crossed the coast. The coastal metropolitan areas of Fort Myers, Cape Coral, and Naples, with a combined population of over one million, are now sifting through the aftermath of a surge of water that in some locations may have been 15 feet above the normal high tide.

As if Ian hadn’t done enough saltwater damage at the coast, it then dumped 10 to 30 inches of freshwater in a wide swath through central Florida. Orlando’s 12.49 inches was the most rain they have ever received in one day since weather record keeping began there in 1892.

After crossing the Florida peninsula, Ian still had enough energy left on Thursday to take advantage of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream in the western Atlantic Ocean and reintensify into a hurricane, bringing wind, surge, and flooding rains to coastal Georgia and the Carolinas on Friday. The storm is forecast to weaken and disappear from the weather map today.

High pressure will still be the dominant weather maker for us through the next week. A slow warming trend will nudge high temperatures into the middle and upper 80s, but humidity will remain low and nights seasonably cool for early October.

As we enter what is usually our driest month of the year, the upcoming week will be the third consecutive week with little to no rain across Pearl River County.