Hurricane Patricia became the strongest storm in the western hemisphere in the hours leading up to landfall in Mexico. Many predicted that a human catastrophe was coming, and a lot of people (including commenters on this blog and social media) were going quite overboard with predictions and misinformation. We’ve talked about the social media communication problem before, so we don’t need to dive into that.
What I do want to dive into is how Patricia wasn’t a forecast failure because it didn’t cause extensive human suffering, but rather one of the finest moments the NHC and governmental response has ever enjoyed.
Let’s get one thing clear right now, the NHC (an American agency) largely did recon missions and issued forecasts for what was a storm which was going to have its most severe impacts in Mexico. The Mexican government took this information and made great decisions on evacuations and storm preparations. That kind of international cooperation is what should be standard across the globe.
And best of all, the storm took a track (well forecasted mind you) into a fairly lightly populated area — and an area where what population there was actually lives quite well above sea level. Oh, and did I mention the storm was smallish as well?
All of this led to a storm which was extremely powerful causing little human misery. Things still could have been bad had appropriate actions not been taken, and they could have been worse had the track been different. Thankfully, neither was the case and human catastrophe was largely avoided.
From the very get go, the NHC was talking about the possibility Patricia could rapidly intensify — and while it defied even the most bullish projections, being ready for things to change quickly likely led to what was an effective response to the storm by the population and government.
As of this writing, the death toll from Patricia still stands at 0, and given the strength of the storm — that’s a heck of a feat no matter how few people it actually impacted.
Patricia likely weakened a good bit right before landfall — although a likely uncalibrated local weather station did report 185 mph winds at one point. But when a hurricane is coming ashore in an area when one of its greatest killers (storm surge) isn’t going to be able to impact coastal communities — the winds take over to be the main threat.
— 28storms.com (@28storms) October 24, 2015
The winds were certainly strong with Patricia — but the social media hype of them being the equivalent to an EF5 tornado were a little over the top and misleading no matter how you *ahem* spin it. Hurricane winds and tornado winds are completely different and their impacts to structures are hardly the same in ‘how’ they destroy them (the whole punch a board vs. gradually and slowly pushing on it harder).
Regardless, from initial reports it does appear there was quite a bit of structural damage and tree damage.
The winds were as such that had the strongest winds impacted a major metro there would have been widespread destruction, of that there is no doubt. In both Perula and Chamela, destruction was widespread, with most structures sustaining heavy damage. This is where some good fortune definitely played a role in where Patricia came ashore.
— Dan Gallo (@dangallo) October 25, 2015
In Perula, where some of the worst winds impacted the region — homes were visibly quite damaged. But again, timely evacuations and the lack of storm surge due to the height of the terrain where most lived helped limit the devastation. It’s a lot easier to shelter from 160-190 mph winds than it is for those winds plus a wall of water coming into town, after all (though the preferable option is to leave town in either situation).
Because of the timely response, the fortunate location of the landfall, plus great forecasts heading into landfall — lives were ultimately saved. Regardless of the lack of a human impact, Patricia is a historic storm and it is very important scientifically.
In many ways, you couldn’t overhype Patricia — but (on social media at least) many would do well to more closely examine storm size, terrain, and population totals in the paths of storms when talking about potential human impacts.
The lessons learned from Patricia will be many, but the most important one is that when Government agencies cooperate, forecasts are well done, and the population responds — human impacts of a storm like Patricia, the strongest in the Western Hemisphere ever, can be lessened to almost/no loss of life. If anything, Patricia shows that the system works with good data mixed with people actually doing what they are told to do.
And that is something to be celebrated.
Until next time!