Episode Five (pt.1) – The 2020 Hurricane Season

English Transcript

Próximamente transcripción en español

Production team: Elizabeth Smith, Pat Hyland, and Ross Forsyth
Logo design and English transcription: Kathryn Geauer

*Dramatic intro music plays* 

Pat Hyland: From the National Weather Museum and Science Center in Norman, Oklahoma, this is “When Did the Storm Begin,” a podcast bringing the history of weather to the forefront. My name is Pat Hyland, Chair for the National Weather Museum and Science Center. Today’s episode: The 2020 Hurricane Season with NWS Lake Charles.

The 2020 Hurricane Season was one for the record books! 30 named storms – including seven using letters from the Greek alphabet – formed in the Atlantic, breaking the previous record of 27 set in 2005. The 13 hurricanes and six major hurricanes in 2020 are both the second most on record behind 2005. 12 named U.S. storm continental landfalls occurred during 2020, breaking the previous annual record of nine landfalls set in 1916. Six hurricanes made U.S. landfall, tying 1886 and 1985 for the most U.S. hurricane landfalls in a single season.

The Louisiana coast experienced an especially challenging hurricane season in 2020. On August 27, Hurricane Laura made landfall in southwest Louisiana as a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds. This tied the 1856 Louisiana hurricane for the strongest landfalling winds on record for the state. Laura was the 10th strongest US landfalling hurricane by wind speed on record. In all, Louisiana experienced five landfalling named storms in 2020 – Cristobol, Marco, Laura, Delta, and Zeta – a new record for Louisiana and any U.S. state.

Today, Dr. Elizabeth Smith is joined by Chanelle Stigger, a forecaster with the National Weather Service Lake Charles, Louisiana Weather Forecast Office to talk about the 2020 hurricane season in a special two-part episode.

Dr. Elizabeth Smith: So first, can you tell us briefly who you are and what you do?

Chanelle Stigger: So, hello my name is Chanelle. I am a meteorologist with NWS, National Weather Service, Lake Charles and I have been here for just over two years now.

ES: I want to start out by discussing the operational, or in other words forecast operations, environment during this hurricane season. The National Weather Service Lake Charles weather forecast office is responsible for a county warning area that covers much of the Louisiana coast and a few counties in far southeast Texas. In 2020, how many tropical storms or hurricanes impacted your county warning area? 

CS: Well, we actually had several tropical storms impact our CWA, our county warning area, however it spans from direct hits to grazing our furthest marine zones. The first storm to impact our area was Tropical Storm Cristobal. NHC [The National Hurricane Center] actually started monitoring this right before the official start date of the 2020 Hurricane Season and it became a tropical storm a little bit later, during the start of hurricane season on June 2nd, so the day after the official start of the hurricane season. Cristobal became the third named, the third-earliest named storm in the Atlantic Basin, beating the previous record set by Tropical Storm Colin in 2016. Tropical Storm Cristobal made landfall between the Mouth of the Mississippi River and Grand Isle, Louisiana about 5:00 PM [CDT] on June 7th with maximum sustained near 50 miles per hour. Cristobal was the second-earliest tropical cyclone to make landfall in Louisiana.

The second storm to impact our area was Hurricane Hanna. While it didn’t make landfall in Louisiana, nor cause any damage in our CWA, we briefly saw minimum sustained tropical force wind speeds in coastal Jefferson [County] and our adjacent coastal waters from the outer bands of Hanna. A little fun fact about Hanna is it also broke a record for the earliest eighth-named storm in the Atlantic Basin. It beat out Tropical Storm Harvey of 2005. This is not to be confused with Hurricane Harvey of the 2017 Hurricane Season, which probably the name alone is a trigger not only for residents in southeast Texas but my fellow coworkers.

The third storm to impact our area was Hurricane Marco. It wasn’t a hurricane when it made landfall, it was actually sheared nearly to death as it made its way north into the Gulf, however, it was more of a headache to us because it made forecasting a nightmare for my office and my sister office, NWS New Orleans, and also for NHC. Marco and Laura occurred one right after the other so the days leading up to Hurricane Laura were stressful to say the least.

This leads into the fourth and most devastating storm to impact our area which is Hurricane Laura. Not necessarily sure where to start with this. Hurricane Laura was a life altering event, and that’s putting it in the simplest terms. Laura began as a large tropical wave that emerged off the western coast of Africa on August 16th. It transversed the Atlantic for the next several days with little to no organization. However on August 19th, it became better organized and it closed off a low-level circulation. That evening NHC began issuing advisories on what they called Tropical Depression Thirteen. On August 21st, Tropical Depression Thirteen strengthened into what was called Tropical Storm Laura, which was the earliest twelfth-named storm in the Atlantic Basin, beating out Hurricane Luis of 1995. On August 25th, Laura entered the Gulf of Mexico and became a Category 1 hurricane at 10 AM [CDT].  Laura began to explosively intensify on the 26th, reaching category 2 by 1 AM [CDT], category 3 by 7 AM [CDT], and category 4 by 1 PM [CDT]. Laura reached a peak intensity of 150 miles per hour by 8 PM [CDT] that night. For those of you not familiar with the wind scale, 157 [mph] would be a category 5, so Laura was right under that, right under a category 5. It made landfall in Cameron, Louisiana at about 1:00 AM [CDT] on August 27th with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. Laura was the strongest hurricane to strike Southwest Louisiana since records began in 1851. Laura slowly weakened after landfall, but maintained major hurricane status throughout its passage across Cameron Parish, Calcasieu Parish, and southern Beauregard Parish. It became a category 2 as it was entering the northern part of Beauregard Parish and Vernon Parish. Wind damage to several structures and trees was major to catastrophic across Cameron and Calcasieu parishes, with considerable damage across Beauregard and Vernon parishes where the core of the hurricane passed. Before it was destroyed, our ASOS at the office recorded a peak wind gust of 133 miles per hour, but winds were for sure stronger than that. Storm surge also caused a lot of damage in Cameron Parish with a noteworthy finding of 17.5 feet above ground measured on the remaining pilings of a beach house over in Rutherford Beach, with similar findings along the beach in Creole [LA]. Everyone working in this office sustained damage from Hurricane Laura. From water spots and cracks along the ceiling to trees literally falling in and collapsing the roof and removing their roofs. Many of us are still recovering from the damage and who knows how long it will take for us to get back to a sense of normalcy.

After Laura, it would have been nice if hurricane season gave us a break, but 2020 was not finished with the gulf coast, nor us. The fifth-named storm, the fifth storm that impacted our area was Tropical Storm Beta. It did not make landfall in our area, nor have a significant impact for our, but it did transverse our CWA as a post-tropical cyclone. September 23rd, less than a month after Hurricane Laura, post-tropical cyclone Beta triggered a few severe thunderstorms that we had to put out warnings for, and we had to issue a few tornado warnings. Keep in mind that we did not have our KLCH WSR88-D which is our radar due to it being destroyed by Hurricane Laura. Despite minimal impacts to the CWA, Beta is something I cannot forget because one of my lead forecasters at the time sent me a video of it raining in his house. A large tree collapsed on his roof during Laura. 

6 weeks after Laura and about 2 weeks after Beta, Hurricane Delta made landfall. This was the sixth storm to impact our area. NHC started issuing advisories on it on October 4th as the system started to become better organized. October 5th, it quickly strengthened into a tropical storm and then a hurricane later that evening. On October 6th, Delta rapidly intensified, becoming a category 4 later that afternoon. On October 7th, it made landfall along the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and weakened down to a category 2. As it entered the southern gulf, it further weakened to a category 1. However, on October 8th, it moved northwestward into the central gulf and intensified as a category 3, regaining its major hurricane status. On October 9th, Delta was downgraded to a category 2 due to dry air and wind shear causing it to weaken a bit. It made landfall later that day about 12 miles east of where Hurricane Laura made landfall. While Delta did cause significant damage to the area, one of my lead forecasters put it like this: Delta stirred up the piles of rubble left behind by Hurricane Laura. The area was crippled by Laura and Delta further delayed the recovery process. Trees, homes, and other structures that were compromised by Laura received additional damage along with debris being blown around. Another problem Delta caused was significant flooding as 12 to 18 inches of rain fell over the area. Delta was the record-setting tenth-named storm of the year to make landfall in the continental United States. However, this record was actually broken 20 days later with Hurricane Zeta and 11 days after that with Tropical Storm Eta. Delta was a record-tying fourth-named storm to make landfall in Louisiana in a single season. But again, this record was broken less than 20 days later with Hurricane Zeta, which is a great transition point into talking about the final storm to impact our area, Hurricane Zeta. While this did not make landfall in our area, he only impact felt in this area were minimal tropical storm force wind gusts in a couple of cities and the coastal waters that border NWS New Orleans’ area which is far, which is off to our east. I already mentioned two of the records that were set by Delta then broken by Zeta, but one other thing I want to mention was the first time that Louisiana had two hurricanes make landfall in October in the same season.  

ES: Wow! What a year. Before we get any further at all, I just want to stop and say thank you, really thank you to you and all of your colleagues at the National Weather Service for continuing to work through all of this. It’s clear already that there are two big stories to tell here. One about the storms themselves, and another entire story about how a season like this one can impact the humans behind the forecasts. So today’s episode is actually broken down into 2 parts. Here in the first part, Chanelle and I will focus on the hurricane season of 2020. In part two, we will come back and explore the human side of the experience. 

Okay Chanelle, you’ve just given us the rundown of the 2020 hurricane season in the Lake Charles area. Hurricanes Laura and Marco were happening nearly simultaneously in the Gulf of Mexico. Laura is the one most folks remember of course, but what were the impacts of dealing with two storms at once during forecast operations? 

CS: Oh, it was definitely a challenge. Hurricane Marco made forecasting for Hurricane Laura challenge. I talked to almost all of the forecasters who were working the days leading up to Hurricane Laura’s landfall, and all of them said it was the first time that they had to deal with 2 tropical storms in the same grid package. So in the same forecast package they were dealing with both of these occurring and overlapping, or not, the wind radii wasn’t overlapping but they had to overlap two different storm systems within the same grid package. The dayshift that was working that Monday before Laura made landfall had to drop some of the watches and warnings for Marco in order to issue the watches and warnings for Laura. And also, Marco was weakening so it wasn’t too much of a problem. Marco made landfall at about 6 PM as a tropical storm, however we had warnings, watches and warnings out for Laura at the time.

ES: During forecast operations, do the forecasters at the National Weather Service offices collaborate with other offices or other agencies?

CS: Oh yes. We collaborate all the time. It’s, it’s a daily thing pretty much. We collaborate with other offices, especially our neighboring weather forecast offices, river forecast centers, and such. It doesn’t take a hurricane to get us to collaborate. Just a few weeks ago I sent a message to one of the forecasters up in Shreveport because someone reported snowfall in a city that’s actually on the southern edge of their warning area and a little bit north of ours.. During different events, collaboration is necessary and mandatory. During a severe weather event or hurricane season we frequently collaborate with the NHC, National Hurricane Center, WPC, SPC, SR-ROC, which is Southern Region ROC, and quite a few others. While we were down during Laura, or down after Laura, we collaborated with Brownsville, who was our primary backup, Houston, and Tampa Bay who all helped us during that time. 

ES: Of course, National Weather Service forecasts and products are available at weather.gov, but what other ways does your office get information out, especially during Hurricane season?

CS: Every Thursday we have Roger Erickson, our Warning Coordination Meteorologist, or another decision support staff give a weekly weather update to emergency managers. During hurricane season, the weekly webinar quickly became the “every other advisory from the NHC” webinar. We also have interactive Facebook live and periscope briefings that are solely performed by meteorologist Donald Jones. During pretty much any event, whether it be severe weather, a hurricane, or snow in the south as we expected back in January and might expect later on, members of the public will quite literally demand him to go on live. Some of the live briefings he did got thousands of views while he was on air and there were times when he was on air for several hours. Myself and a few other coworkers usually stick to answering the phone, answering phone calls and any questions via there or social media.

ES: So as many folks might have saw on the news, and you kind of already mentioned it earlier, the Lake Charles WSR88D radar, which is right outside the Weather Service building that you work in, was destroyed during Laura. The radome was torn away, and the radar dish was found over a thousand feet away. What was the reaction from you and other forecasters when you found out about this?

CS: We all had different reactions from seeing the destruction of the radar. Some of us initially thought it was Photoshopped from the radome in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. After I saw it in person, I was actually more surprised to see the tower standing. I was driving in out of the west and the damage, the amount of damage increased like a gradient as I got closer to Lake Charles. I saw buildings completely destroyed so it was surprising to me to see that the tower had survived looking at everything else that did not. Before we evacuated, some of us were talking about what we thought would happen to the offices and surrounding areas. A few of the forecasters were more optimistic than others about what would survive. For the optimistic few, the damage was unbelievable. Nevertheless it was hard to process the damage. It just didn’t feel real even seeing it with our own eyes. 

ES: I’m sure the radar wasn’t the only thing to take a hit then. How else was your office’s equipment impacted?

CS: Other than our radar, we had an ET supply building that was completely destroyed, a comms tower, our RSOIS and ASOS that were blown down, and the doors to the upper air building were blown in. Honestly the actual office building we worked in was the only thing on the property that wasn’t completely messed up. I came back to the office about 3 days later and it was shocking to see all of the damage. I’m not sure why I thought the upper air building would survive, but it definitely did not. The doors and the track sustained significant damage and it took them months to repair it. During the time that we did not have doors filling the balloon became nearly impossible. Before Hurricane Delta, they rigged the south door to the upper-air building up so we could at least try to fill the balloons safely. But there were days when we had strong northerly winds with no door to block it. I remember trying to fill up a balloon to launch hours before Delta made landfall. Winds were whipping around the building and tossing the balloon during inflation. It looked like one of those wacky arm inflatable tube man. The balloon ended up popping during inflation and I could not get a flight off. About a month before they started repairs on the building, they removed the south door that they had rigged up previously. That was even more of a nightmare. The upper air building was essentially a wind tunnel. Winds around 5 to 10 miles per hour made it impossible to fill the balloon because of the way the winds were flowing through the building. 

ES: So we hear that progress has been moving along on repairing the radar, and it should be up soon! But before we talk about that, during the time without it, was it harder to do some of your work?

CS: Oh yes. Oh yes. I am relatively new but not having a radar has made issuing warnings hard for all of us. We have other neighboring radars nearby. Houston off to the west, Fort Polk up to the north, and Slidell or North Orleans off to our east. However there are areas that are too far away from any of those radars to get a good look at what’s going on. Not to get too deep into the science of it, but the height of the radar beam increases as the distance increases. We can’t see what is going on in the lower levels of the atmosphere for distant storms so it’s like working with a partial blindfold on. That led to us issuing more warnings than normal because we took the philosophy of it’s better to be safe than sorry. And the good news is that we actually got the radar back sooner than expected! Originally it was expected to be back up in late March, but it became officially operational January 22nd! 

ES: Well I’m sure that’s welcome news. So what is it like working the forecast floor during these storms? You know, how is it different for a high-impact storm like you described for Hurricane Laura compared to a still important, but maybe less impactful storm like Zeta?

CS: Again, I’m fairly “new” to the weather service. By the time Hurricane Laura made landfall, I had only been here for just over one and a half years. I didn’t really know how to react. It was definitely stressful, however there interesting thing about me is I have the ability of mocking what I see. I saw my fellow forecasters react as calmly as possible so that they could get the job done. So that is what I did to the best of my ability. I’ll admit that there were times where I had to walk away and take a breath, but I got right back to it… That’s the job. As far as the significance of the storm is concerned, it doesn’t change how we work. It could be something on the scale of Hurricane Laura or something as simple as an afternoon summer thunderstorm; we work together as a team. Now, we do have a kind of in quotes “stress relieving remix” that we sing and dance along to during hurricane season specifically. But that’s something we kind of keep among ourselves.

ES: Well that sounds like a real challenge to manage the stress effectively and still do the excellent work that you do. I am looking forward to exploring how the people like you do it every day in part two of this episode! Thanks so much Chanelle for sharing your stories on this episode of When Did the Storm Begin. Be sure to join us for Part 2 of this episode, where Chanelle and I will discuss the humans behind the forecasts during the 2020 Hurricane Season at Lake Charles. 

If you or someone you know experiences stress and anxiety associated with high-impact weather, you can find resources at weather.gov/oun/stormanxiety. Above all else, don’t be scared, be prepared. Visit ready.gov and make your safety plans today. 

PH: Have an idea for our next episode? Share your ideas and questions for us at info, that’s i-n-f-o, at National Weather Museum dot com [info@nationalweathermuseum.com], or find us on social media. The National Weather Museum and Science Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that operates with the generous support of people like you. Help us continue to preserve the history and highlight the future of weather research by donating or becoming a member today. Find out more at www.nationalweathermuseum.com

Join us next time for the second part of our special two-part episode with Chanelle Stiggler of NWS Lake Charles as we discuss the humans behind the forecasts during the 2020 hurricane season.

*Dramatic music fades out*