We’re getting the runaround about wind speeds

December 2, 2022
By Marcy Shortuse

There’s a lot of misinformation floating around about what the wind speeds were during Hurricane Ian. Some people swear their neighbor has a device that measured 225 mph winds. Others say they know someone who clocked 230 mph winds and one even swore they knew someone who got a 256 mph reading.

That being said, all of the meteorologists at NOAA and the National Weather Service haven’t said a word yet. That’s because they aren’t done calculating what the wind speeds were on September 28 when Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida.

What is the difference between using an anemometer purchased at Amazon.com and the equipment the NWS uses? Apparently, a lot.

We contacted one of the companies whose truck was parked with the University of Florida storm researchers the day before the hurricane, when they were all parked along Gasparilla Road by the Fust Library. The name of their Pensacola-based company is Complete: Expert Engineers, General Contractors and Building Scientists. That’s quite a mouthful in itself, but the subhead title of their company says, “A multi-disciplinary professional services team with decades of experience studying the effects of time and weather on the built environment.”

These guys sound serious.

We gave them a call and spoke with a guy named Matt, who said that their resident meteorologist might be able to give us some information. He was able to tell us that the equipment they use is “super complicated,” and it can take weeks to get all of the information together from all of the towers they put up on the island.

“After Hurricane Michael, the information didn’t come out for more than six months after the storm hit,” he said. “And that was the National Weather Service recording wind speeds.”

The key to it, he said, is that the monitoring devices have to be airborne and in just the perfect spot. That might ring a bell, as that was almost the entire theme of the movie, “Twister.”

Matt said the towers they installed are placed in as varied spots as possible, and at different heights. 

“Wind speeds are different at each height level,” he explained. “For instance, if you’re measuring ground wind speeds at 110 mph, they might be 140 mph from a 10-story level.”

He told us that he would speak with Dan the meteorologist and then call us back. 

We got no call, so we called him.

“He’s in a conference,” Matt said. “He texted me and said that a maximum wind speed has been put out there, but he can’t remember what it is right now, or where to find it.”

Huh?

Yes, we were foiled again. We’ve been trying to reach the storm researchers from the University of Florida since a few days after the storm, but to no avail. They aren’t talking. We did hear that after the storm, one of the researchers spoke with an island resident who said they recorded a maximum wind gust of 223 mph.

Again, though, that’s all rumor and here say.

The gentleman from Chicago, a self-proclaimed storm chaser, spoke with just about everyone except us. He has two videos on YouTube from his time during the storm and his account listed his email. We tried to reach him but he wouldn’t respond … but he had told our publisher he would not go on record with the information he collected, so no surprise there.

The facts that we have right now from an accredited weather source are these, from the National Weather Service: On the morning of Sept. 28, Ian intensified into a Category 4 hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico, with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph, just shy of a Category 5 storm. Ian came ashore near Cayo Costa, Florida, at 3:05 p.m. EDT with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph, tying the record for the fifth-strongest hurricane on record to strike the United States. 

Local meteorologists attempted to record wind gust information, but their equipment is stationary, which doesn’t give an accurate reading. Unless you’re dropping desondes from a plane into the storm, you aren’t going to get the actual readings of a gust. In other words, you have to be floating in air for an accurate reading to be retrieved. Or, perhaps, have some “super complicated” equipment like the company Complete, or the U of F researchers.

To get a good feel as to how complex this process is, this is a paragraph from the World Meteorological Organization’s recommendation for optimum conditions for wind observation. They are talking about how difficult it can be to get accurate gust information. 

“In practice, these conditions are hardly ever met; therefore, methods have been proposed to correct for a suboptimal site environment, called exposure correction. These methods are based on turbulence measurements, but if those are not available, information on gusts is used instead, which means that the correction can only be applied to correct the mean wind speed, not the wind gust speed. According to WMO, the representativity of the measurements, for example over a rough surface, can be improved by adjusting the measurement height but it requires a higher supporting structure or a meteorological mast, which can be costly to build.”

So there. Clear as mud.

In February of 2020 Weather Underground published a report about the highest wind gusts recorded by an anemometer. In 1934 the Mount Washington Observatory recorded a 231 mph wind gust, which remained the world’s highest until 1996, when another anemometer-recorded gust at Barrow Island, Australia was documented at 253 mph. This wind gust came from the passage of Tropical cyclone Olivia, categorized as a Cat 4 storm with sustained winds of 140 mph. The anemometer that recorded that gust was stationed at 210 feet in the air.

As far as the myth about not paying a deductible if it is a Cat 5, Florida’s own CFO, Jimmy Patronis, debunked that one in an article posted in 2019 by MyFloridaCFO.com.

“Regardless of the strength of a storm, insurance deductibles are required to be paid before repairs begin,” he said.

We hope to have more on this story next week. Maybe even some numbers that are carved in stone.