Stranger than Fiction

Friday, September 24, 2004

Models, cones, radar oh my!

The bizarre hurricane season is turning Florida into a state of amateur meteorologists.

Of course, we have good reason to become obsessed with The Weather Channel and www.nhc.noaa.gov, home of the National Hurricane Center's forecasts. On Tuesday, both were tracking two hurricanes and a tropical storm.

Even so, it's irritating to hear your co-workers, neighbors and friends bust out with their daily Bob Reeves impersonations.

You step onto the elevator at work, and some guy says, "Have you seen the latest computer model? The cone of uncertainty takes in Tampa. We'd better hunker down."

This was pure gibberish to me only months ago.

Now I know to reply, "I saw that! But NOAA, VIPIR and AccuWeather all have different tracks for Jeanne."

Then I resist the urge to kick my elevator companion in the face, because OF COURSE I'm following the hurricane tracks. Like every other Floridian, that information defines my entire existence.

For normal people -- meaning the rest of the nation -- I offer this handy guide to understanding the Florida relatives who will be evacuating to your homes.

Computer model: A possible hurricane track based on prior movement, weather patterns and if the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars. You want the computer model to show a hurricane passing over your city, because it means the storm certainly will not go that way.

Cone of uncertainty: On the computer model, this is the broader area where the hurricane could hit if it doesn't go exactly where predicted. This typically takes in all of Florida, most of the Gulf and East Coasts and parts of Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado.

Lives forever changed: The condition of people affected by a hurricane. This phrase has been broadcast and printed over and over in the past five weeks. It should be banned from use by all reporters.

OF COURSE their lives are forever changed. Having the entire contents of your home emptied into the Atlantic Ocean tends to do that.

Hunker down: To hide in an interior closet, bathroom or utility area with your kids, dogs, cats, treasured photos and roughly 300 gallons of bottled water until the hurricane passes, even if the hurricane is two days away. We're starting to get a little nuts.

NOAA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is the government's hurricane tracking arm. In Florida, it's the closest thing we have to state-sponsored religion.

VIPIR: Volumetric Imaging and Processing of Integrated Radar. It's something a top-rated weather broadcaster in Tampa Bay uses, but nobody else understands it. I like it when the weather guy says, "VIPIR shows the track turning here ..." or a similar phrase because VIPIR sounds way cooler than "Pinpoint Doppler 9000," which is what a competing station uses.

Weather withdrawal: What we experience when hurricanes aren't on the front pages of newspapers or the lead story on the local news. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen often.

Heidi Hall is a former managing editor of the Southeast Missourian who now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.