Hurricane Dorian

Jesse Burson saw three people head into the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday ahead of Hurricane Dorian. 

The Bahamas are recovering from a devastating and unpredictable storm: hurricane Dorian, a weather system with wildly-shifting trajectories and intensities.

Forecasts for the East Tennessee area ranged from thunderstorms to sunny skies, and local responses had a wide range of predictions too; some were nonchalant, some prepared for storms and others, like the area Red Cross, sent volunteers to the coast.

How can a hurricane impact inland East Tennessee? Why are they so unpredictable and what can we expect in the future?

East Tennesseedoesn’t often experience hurricane damage – but it’s happened before.

The area has felt the impact of several hurricanes in the past few decades, including some that tore through the Great Smoky Mountains.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Hurricanes Hugo and Opal damaged both trees and trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Several other hurricanes also caused storm weather in East Tennessee in the 2000s, but to a lesser extent.

Meteorologist Todd Howell told his station Knoxville’s WBIR-TV that hurricanes rarely impact inland areas because of their “engine” – warm water.

"As soon as a hurricane or a tropical system moves inland, it loses its engine, its source of strength, its warm water, so it rapidly weakens," Howell said.

But that doesn’t mean inland communities are always safe, Howell added.

"Frances and Ivan, both of those [made] quite an impact in East Tennessee in 2004," Howell told WBIR. "Frances coming right up from our south, Ivan coming through and looping back around to the Gulf.“

But as for Hurricane Dorian, East Tennessee is safe, unlike its coastal neighbors. As Florida, Georgia and surrounding islands prepared for the worst, inland agencies sent supplies and volunteers into the storm’s path.

The East Tennessee chapter of the American Red Cross sent several disaster response volunteers to areas in the expected impact zone. Gretchen Sherrill, the chapter’s business operations specialist, said almost a dozen employees and volunteers left for the coastal states.

“Right now, we have 11 that volunteered,” Sherrill said, explaining that two of the deployed members were staff, and the other nine were volunteers. “Two of the nine are emergency response vehicle operators, because our emergency response vehicle has also deployed. So if you’re in a neighborhood where it’s difficult for people to get out, we can go in with meals.”

Sherrill said more local volunteers are on standby, and there are no plans to open shelters in East Tennessee.

UT climatology professor Kelsey Ellis, who studied hurricanes extensively, said Hurricane Dorian is setting a course up and away.

“Dorian should continue to move northwest, and no rainfall or winds from the storm are expected in Knoxville,” Ellis said.

However, Ellis said the hurricane moved slowly and destructively over the Bahamas. NPR reported that the hurricane caused two days’ worth of damage and at least seven deaths.

What made Dorian so destructive?

Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told NPR that many portions of the island were completely flooded.

"In fact, the area around the airport now looks like a lake," Minnis told NPR. "It is going to require a massive coordinated effort to rebuild our communities.“

Final numbers of the hurricane’s physical and human cost are not yet known, but Ellis said two unique characteristics explain why the hurricane caused such heavy damage.

“First, Dorian’s extremely slow forward speed – Dorian crawled at 1 mph for a while over the Bahamas. This meant locations were impacted for large periods of time. Unfortunately, this happened at the time of Dorian’s second unique characteristic, which was extremely high wind speeds,” Ellis said. “Dorian was a very strong Category 5, the second strongest to make landfall in the Atlantic Ocean in our history of hurricanes.”

Hurricane Dorian’s slow path and devastating winds combined over the Bahamas with devastating results, Ellis said.

“As a result, Dorian displaced more energy over one space than nearly every storm since 1950, only to be beaten by a storm in the West Pacific in 2009,” Ellis said.

What can we expect from future hurricanes?

Hurricane Dorian’s slow path is part of a larger trend, Ellis said. Hurricanes seem to be slowing down, and as of right now, climatologists aren’t sure exactly why.

“Recently, scientists have shown that hurricanes in some basins have begun slowing down. This may be because our data are getting more accurate or it may be as a result of climate change,” Ellis said. “It makes sense theoretically, because if the Arctic is warming the fastest, then the winds between the Arctic and Tropics will slow down.”

If hurricanes really are slowing down, Ellis said, they will continue to cause severe damage like in the Bahamas.

“If the slowing of the storms is due to climate and storms continue to slow, then we can expect storms to have longer-lasting impacts, similar to Dorian.”

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