Until the telegraph was invented in 1844, news of approaching hurricanes arrived just ahead of their landfall, when sailors seeking safe harbor announced them. Even with the telegraph, however, pinpointing the location of a hurricane was difficult and tracking its course was impossible.
Now, thanks to satellite technology, no hurricane goes unnoticed. "It's impossible for an existing storm to sneak up on the coast," says James L. Franklin, a hurricane specialist at the Tropical Prediction Center in Miami, Florida. Over the past decade, satellites have been equipped with sensors that "see" through rain to pinpoint the center, or eye, of a storm.
"It's kind of like having a radar up in space," says Franklin. "Conventional satellites told us where the clouds were, but we had no clue what was going on under those canopies." Even so, it's not always possible to tell exactly where the center of a developing storm is, in what direction it's headed, and how quickly it will move. That's where airplane reconnaissance comes in.
In 1943, a spontaneous (and some would say reckless) experiment proved that pilots can indeed fly right into the severe turbulence and heavy rain of a hurricane—and live to tell about it. Colonel Joseph Duckworth, a U.S. Army pilot and World War II hero, flew his single engine, two-seater AT-6 plane straight into the eye of a hurricane with 132-mph winds that was bearing down on Texas, winning a bet for highballs at the officer's club that night.
Although meteorologists had theorized that the eye of a hurricane was warmer than the surrounding air, the thermometer in Duckworth's plane gave them tangible proof: It showed a whopping 25° discrepancy. The daring feat paved the way for today's hurricane-hunting planes.
Airborne computer labs now routinely fly into any hurricane—defined as an intense tropical weather systems with winds over 74 mph—that threatens to make landfall. Their crews drop sensors into the storm to determine the exact speed and direction of the wind, among the data.
Still, Mother Nature can trump even the best technology. "Strange things can happen, even in periods of only a few hours. Storms may wobble around, stop, or do little loops," says Franklin. For example, in 1998 Hurricane Mitch killed 9,000 people after hovering off the coast of Honduras for several days, dumbfounding forecasters who didn't expect the storm to veer south. "To this day, we don't understand why that happened," he says.
Hurricane warnings are issued 24 hours in advance of landfall for 300 miles of coastline on average, even though in all likelihood, less than one-third of the area will actually experience hurricane conditions. "Some part of the warned area is likely to wonder what the fuss was about," says Franklin, adding that the 'over-warning' is needed because no one can say with precision exactly where the hurricane will hit. "We could post warnings earlier, but then we'd be warning an awful lot of people who would end up not being affected by the storm," he says.
For the Record
Forecast: Strong winds, chance of rain?
Fact: In 1891, U.S. Weather Bureau employee Isaac Cline wrote, "The coast of Texas is, according to the general laws of the motions of the atmosphere, exempt from West India hurricanes."
There is no evidence of Cline's observations in early September 1900. At that time, a tropical storm had been sighted near Cuba, but the storm's direction was a mystery. On September 8, the skies above Galveston, Texas, were overcast, but no one expected anything more than strong winds. That night, a 15-foot storm surge from the hurricane demolished the island and over 8,000 people drowned.
In 1961 when Hurricane Carla hit Galveston with 145-mph winds, 50 people lost their lives. In this case, early warnings gave the vast majority of those in harm's way ample time to evacuate.