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September 11, 2008

Ike is big, but no "monster"

U.S. Navy

Okay, I've been grumping privately about this for a couple of weeks - ever since the CNN morning achors began referring to Hurricane Gustav as a "monster" storm as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico and threatened New Orleans.

This morning, they did it again. Only this time, Kiran Chetry used the word to describe Hurricane Ike, now closing in on the Houston area with another round of violent tropical weather nobody around the Gulf needs to see again.

Now, I do sometimes take issue with those who accuse the news media of "hyping" Atlantic hurricanes. These are dangerous storms, and there are thousands of lives and billions of dollars in property at risk whenever hurricanes or tropical storms make landfall. The media and government at all levels - as well as the general public - need to err on the side of caution every time. It would be far worse - as the Bush Administration learned after Katrina (photo above) - to do too little to prepare and to warn people about the possibilities.

That said, we also cannot afford to devalue the language we use in describing these storms and their potential consequences.

Gustav was no "monster." My dictionary defines "monstrous" as "Deviating from the norm in structure or appearance... unusually large ... hideous: shocking."   Churchill described the Nazi regime as "a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed." Get the drift?

Gustav was, briefly, a strong Category 4 storm, with top sustained winds of 150 mph. But its encounter with Cuba knocked it back to a 135-mph Cat. 3. Despite forecasts to the contrary, it actually weakened as it moved in on Louisiana, and went ashore as a strong Cat. 2 storm. 

It was bad. Twenty-five people died in the U.S. as a result of this storm. And damages came to something like $20 billion. But it was hardly the "Storm of the Century," or the "Mother of all Storms" that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned his residents about. Now, you could argue that Nagin was just trying to motivate his people to flee, and avoid the scenes of death, desperation and squalor that followed Katrina. But what words will he use when a Cat 4 or Cat 5 bears down on his city again? And, given enough time, it will.

Ike is bad, too. Here's the latest advisory. Here is the forecast storm track. And here is the view from orbit.

Ike is a Cat. 2 hurricane with top sustained winds of 100 mph. And forecasters say there's a chance he could become a Cat. 3 (111 mph or more) before making landfall on Saturday morning. But Ike is no monster, either.

The National Hurricane Center tells us that storms of Cat. 3 or more occur an average of 2.3 times each season.  Now, for my money, you don't get to be a "monster" hurricane if you show up more than twice every season, on average.

So what about Cat. 4? The government's data shows that Cat. 4 storms strike the U.S. once every six years, on average. I'd use the word "historic" for those, perhaps. But "monstrous?"

To get a "monster" label from CNN, I would argue that you have to qualify as a Cat. 5 hurricane as you get within a few days of landfall. Katrina would qualify under that definition. She reached Cat. 5 status, however briefly, a day before landfall, but slowed to a Cat. 3 before touching the Louisiana coast. She killed more than 1,800 people, and caused $81 billion in damage.

NOAA/CamilleAny  Cat. 5 storm that makes landfall with that sort of power gets a free ticket to monstrous, in my book. That admits the Labor Day Storm of 1935, Hurricane Camille (left) on the Gulf Coast in 1969, and Hurricane Andrew in South Florida in 1992.

Cat 5 storms - with top sustained winds of 155 mph or more -form in the Atlantic, on average, once every three years, although the pace in the 2000s seems to have quickened. There have been only four years - 1960, 1961, 2005 and 2007 - when more than one Cat. 5 has formed in the same season. And 2005 was the only year in which two Cat. 5 storms (Dean and Felix) made landfall (not in the U.S.) at that strength.

Now that starts to sound more like "monster" to me. You could also make a case for using central barometric pressure as your measure of "monstrosity." I could live with that. I'd nominate any storm with a central pressure of 27.50 inches of mercury or less. 

I would also allow the word to be used - after the fact - for the most destructive storms, such as Hazel (1954) and Agnes (1972), which, while not Cat. 5 storms, were monstrously destructive anyway. 

But that's just me. What do you think?

Posted by Frank Roylance at 9:48 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: Hurricanes


You are so right!! All this hype is the equivalent of "crying wolf." Now, when the real "monster" storm comes - no one will listen...

If "monster" means "unusually large", as your definition implies, then Ike certainly qualifies. There's a lot more to damage potential than simply maximum wind speed. Check out Ike's IKE (integrated kinetic energy). On that scale, Ike exceeds Katrina, Wilma, and every other storm for the past 40 years.

FR: Good point. Thanks.

while I agree with some of what you said, I wish to remind you that there are a large number of people still without power, still without homes. I was in baton rouge. It was the worst hurricane my 95 year old grandmother has seen there in her life. To many it was a monster. Many are still suffering from it. Just because the news didn't cover and isn't covering the devastation in the bayou, and because it missed new Orleans, shouldnt cancel the fact that to some, such as the Houma nation, it was one mean storm.

FR: Of course, if any storm floods your home, wrecks your commnunity or injures a loved one it is a "monster" to you, no matter how it's rated by the NWS. But it is dangerous to use such language to describe approaching storms that are not extraordinary. If we do, we drain the words of real meaning and weaken our warnings when we really need them to mobilize people.

Goes right along with those saying global warming is causing so many monster storms this season. I thought we were having a pretty mild season from my point of view. Not that the destruction in Hatti hasn't been devastating. But come on, we have had much worse seasons through out time. As I recall, the fifties had it's share of horrible hurricane seasons. I guess global warming took a break.

Easy for you to say! You're in Baltimore!
Generally speaking, I agree about keeping some perspective on these storms, but this one is scary and I've been through several hurricanes. I just hope it fizzles out and
you will be viewed as remarkably prescient.

FR: I hope so too, for your sake. Good Luck to everyone down there.

Mr. Roylance:

With all due respect, your meteorological analysis is sound and on point. However I would ask which is worse.. a Category 5 storm striking a sparsely populated area, or a Category 2/3 plowing slowly through the 5th largest city in the United States, with a region that's home to 11% of all US fuel production?

These events are not just about who wins the trophy for highest wind speeds. When human lives are at stake, there is absolutely nothing wrong with "all hands on deck" approach.

For the people of Houston and Galveston, this is as monstrous as it gets. I have extended family directly in the storm's path, whom have a young child. For that baby and many others like her, it will surely be a monster that may linger in their minds long after the storm has left.

Aloha from Maui, Hi. As a long time hurricane survivor originally from South Florida (David, Andrew, Wilma, etc)., I find it interesting that you all are arguing over the term "monstrous", when there are millions of people trying to escape the horror of a hurricane. People in the North East simply can't conceive of how terrible one of theses monsters is. Just because you don't remember the "Long Island Express" does not mean it didn't happen. When you are in the middle of one these "nature's cleaning service", all your can think about is the winds stopping, it being over, and not loosing your mind. Even a CAT 2 hurricane is very scary and destructive when you in the line of fire. And while yes, it is beneficial not to "cry wolf", being prepared is never wrong. And speaking of true monsters, few of you know of Hurricane Iniki, which hit the Hawaiian island of Kaua`i in 1992, packing catastrophic winds of over 227 miles per hour!! They may have been greater, yet the wind instrument blew away!! Blessings to all of you anywhere in the Gulf this weekend. May this hurricane help to remind you how truly precious life is.

FR: You are so right. I was a kid in NJ for Hazel and several other big storms, but my most vivid encounter with a hurricane as an adult came in the 70s, in SE Massachusetts. I was a new homeowner, and excited at first by the approaching storm. But as the wind rose around the house, and changed into a terrifying howl, I realized my house and my family were in some real danger. It was very frightening. And I doubt those winds ever actually reached hurricane force. Any hurricane is to be feared and respected. I'm just trying to argue that we need to guard against hype, which can cause people to dismiss subsequent warnings that they need to heed.

Yeah those monster hurricanes you get in Maryland must be terrible. Good to know we have someone like you with so much hurricane experience.

Greetings from Houston.

This article could easily be one of the most ignorant pieces of journalism i have ever read. Why dont you look at the facts- while the storm is currently only a cat 2, it has displaced 50% more water from the gulf than katrina did as a cat 5- in terms of sheer size, Ike (again as a cat 2) is larger than katrina (a cat 5) ever was.

if you want to read an article written by someone that has some base of knowledge to report on the subject, i suggest the following:

FR: Thanks for the link.

I don't know about you, but just the word hurricane, in and of itself, should be enough to warrant haste, irregardless of any adjective placed in front of it.

FR: I agree. But it doesn't. There are always people who stay to "ride it out." Even in Galveston, where they should know better. What words do you use to get through to them if you've used up all your strongest language?

I'm so sorry for the people down in Cuba,south of Key West and Alabama


You guys crack me up. First of all, no its not going to be the storm of the century or anything like that but just because it seems like hurricanes are become almost daily (thats how it feels to me) doesn't mean that it is any less devastating. However, if you really want to spend so much time on your soap box, get ... down here where im at in houston or go to new orleans and say that [expletive deleted]. you would be killed before you could get back on your flight back to your hurricane free state. Im a United States Army Veteran, and this stuff doesnt bother me at all except that i have a son i have to worry about. and thats what it really boils down to with alot of people. we worry about the safety of our kids. and to Ernie, i suggest you keep your fat mouth shut ... People here are forced to ride it out. not everyone can just pick and go. some people dont just have a few hundred dollars or more that is needed to pick up and leave. you need money for gas, food, hotels, etc. at a moments notice. then if you do have money to spare, good luck getting ... out of Houston or Galveston because all of our highways are backed up. Gee, why would they be backed up? i thought people were to ignorant and wanted to ride it out? obviously a lot of people are leaving and thats why they are backed up ... and nobody wants a repeat of what happened when Hurricane Rita was supposed to hit here real bad. Cars overheating, an entire bus with elderly citizens blew up randomly, people ended up walking it was so backed up. so the idea of leaving isnt exactly appealing. choice 1) leave and get stuck in traffic for days with my screaming terrified kids in the car with no bathroom and just be sitting there in the open and pray that you get out before the storm hits or choice 2) board up the windows, stock up on food and be comfortable in my own home ... and in case you didnt know, homes in texas are pretty big compared to those ... poor apartments like you have in the north. i have a 3600 sq.ft. all brick house and im ... staying here. not to mention, for some reason, even though there's a storm with 100mph + winds coming through, people still like to loot. and i'll be waiting for anybody who tries with a wide range of weapons, and i dont think anybody wants to meet my 240B. (240B is a very nice machine gun. 800rounds a minute. ) thats how we do down here in texas ...

FR: Cleaned up by me for family consumption. I don't trespass in your 3,600 sq ft home; you don't cuss on my blog.

As a Miami native who has experienced both Andrew and Wilma I can say that I was re-educated on Hurricanes with my experience with Wilma.

I had no clue why a supposed category 2 or 3 hurricane could terrified me and my family for nearly 2 1/2 hours as we witnessed a window literally sucked out of one of the rooms only after a half hour into it.

The doors, windows, and foundation of our sturdy home rattled with an unbelievable force as if some evil force was trying to suck the life out of it.

I was horrified while I sat with my back to the door as I feared it would fly off the hinges. The expression on the news reporters sitting in the studio of one of our local stations should have been our first clue as to what was about to happen.

Calls began to flood in from Miami-Dade and Broward county residents in a panic about some mysterious/wicked weather in their areas and what to do as no one was told to evacuate unless you were in a mobile home or east of A1A &/or US 1.

It was the most brutal storm I had ever experienced in my entire life as a south Floridian and self-educated meteorologist. LOL!!!

After listening to my family, friends and co-workers they too were baffled by the eerie "force" of this storm. I truly don't think the meteorologist expected this either. And if I'm not mistaken a local newspaper reported that hurricane experts were confused and speculated that it was actually a category 4 or 5 after initially saying it was a 1 or 2.

21 days later when my power was restored, the first thing I did was hop on Google to do my own research and found that I had totally missed the most important thing you really want to know about a hurricane and that is the barometric pressure.

And low and behold Wilma was a record breaker and clinched the # 1 spot as the most powerful storm on record with a low 882 mb.

The barometric pressure is the key to how intense the hurricane will be.

It is my understanding that Katrina packed a powerful punch as well with 920 mb and is undoubtedly the most costliest and most lives lost in any storm. However, the actual tragedies of this particular storm didn't happen until after the storm had passed.

The levees broke due to the overflow of water from the storm surge which was anticipated being that they were not built for a storm surge of that capacity.

I think what we probably should get from this is the fact that many people in New Orleans didn't evacuate perhaps because they had evacuated many times in the past only to find that the storms where not that serious from their own personal observations, experiences, and financial predicaments. And with that being said, it probably wasn't worth their efforts and resources to evacuate.

But when the true "MONSTER" storm was on its way they didn't take heed and the rest is history...

Main stream media should be more accountable and sensitive to the safety of it's viewers.

Stick to the facts on safety issues without putting a spin on the truth, that's all.

thought this might interest you

Okay so I have to agree with Gabriel's colorful post... I've become particularly tired of this evacuation mania from folks whose closest experience to evacuation is navigating traffic after a baseball game.
It's not a choice between taking a day-trip to the spa or dying a gruesome death worthy of a 70s disaster movie. (Not always anyway...) This is going to come as a huge shock to some people - but sometimes the safest choice is to prepare and shelter in place. I've been hearing those words for my entire 37 years on this planet: SHELTER IN PLACE. They usually come right after the words: "If you live in a low-lying area or in a substandard structure, make plans now to evacuate... Otherwise...."
I'm seeing a whole lot of region-bias going on in the media and around the internet. We really aren't quite as stupid as you think down here. I promise.

"Guess your the guy who people say leave him he aint worth it....."
Now that is the exact reason people will argue and banter, bosting about machine guns for me, proves how ignorant and lack of understanding the Original posters comments, you are period.. I live in Houston and we will be going to family further north, I wouldn't say Monster in anyways or form, it's just a seasonal thing now and we prep if it lands or not, when your not put in harms way it is easy to say OMG look at that.. but when your use to it like water off a ducks back it's like humm do I take off work or not. I have work friends that will be working this Friday-Sunday, and all there concern is, hey man make sure there is food. But above all if the term Monsterous is going to be used it needs to be tagged to the guys who are out there will be out there making sure we or our houses are safe and power comes back on and we have water. these guys/gals are forgotten about all to easy.. they do a "Monsterous Job".. remains one of the best sites for up-to-date info. Yes indeed, this storm has very good organization, it's heading into storm-friendly neighborhood, and it's wind radius is gi-normous.

Some of the damage will be determined by tide timings. It's just about full moon, which means bigger tides, which could help or hurt:
2008-09-12 20:21 CDT 0.43 feet Low Tide
2008-09-13 03:49 CDT 2.46 feet High Tide

Long story short, the max wind speed (i.e. category) of the hurricane and it's minimum central pressure are about as indicitive of destructive capacity as heart rate or blood pressure is of human health. In both cases there's "worse", but the measures change rapidly and frequently.

By all estimates, this storm surge is a killer. Even if the storm weakens, the water will still be piled up. But recent estimates show a Cat 3 landfall sometime after 2am - right around high tide. This one's mean - it may not be "strong" but it's plenty big and looking mean.

For more detailed analysis, see

I wonder about the increasing numbers of hurricane activity, as well as their increasing apparent strength over the past decade or so, which many have tied to increasing temperatures in the gulf particularly, and from that to global warming. If human activity is resulting in greater hurricane activity, isn't increasing offshore drilling exactly the wrong thing to do, because these storms are so likely to disrupt production in the gulf and the atlantic, as well as refinery potential adjacent to these areas?

FR: Increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin has actually been most clearly linked to multi-decadal cycles of ocean and atmospheric conditions in the Atlantic. These cycles are not global-warming related. The latest active cycle began in 1995. Global warming theory argues that we'll see more intense storms, but not necessarily more numerous storms. Offshore drilling is vulnerable to violent tropical weather, although the industry argues its technology is more secure than it used to be. We may find out tomorrow when Ike goes ashore. The most interesting arguments I've heard against a rush to more offshore drilling are that 1) the U.S. will more quickly deplete the meager petroleum reserves we still have (which we will need for vital products other than automotive fuels), leaving us MORE vulnerable to the oil-rich regimes of the Middle East and Russia, and 2) we need to use the current tight demand and high oil prices to provide incentives for development of the cleaner, renewable energy technologies we are going to need when the oil finally does run short. Until then we are in a very weak geopolitical position. Tom Friedman argues in his new book that the quickest way to weaken the Irans and Putins of the world is to pull the rug out from under the high oil prices that is the source of their geopolitical power, by turning to home-grown energy conservation (which had a fast impact on prices and OPEC in the 1970s), new U.S.-made energy-efficient technologies and a switch to home-grown renewable energy sources. He says too many of the energy technologies developed here are being bought by European companies or Japan because the US business and regulatory environment has been so unfriendly.

I am so glad somebody finally said this. I've been wanting to say it since Gustav, too.

what most of you are missing is the water issue. of course houston will experience excessive an F1 tornado for, oh, 2-3 hours. but the real fear factor is the water. 20 feet of storm surge will kill anyone not on the third story. and even on the third story, if the building collapses....hope you brought your surf board.

This is not a monster by any means. It is very serious but not a monster.

Andrew, Labor Day, Katrina, Camille, Gilbert, Ivan; those were monsters.

Ike is large and serious but not a beast.

The F5 tornado that hit Oklahoma City's suburbs in 1999 was a monster, not the F2 in randomville.

The Blizzard of 96 was a monster, not a snowstorm that brought exceedingly heavy snowfall obly to NYC.

Eric, the Blizzard of '96 was not a monster. It was inconvenient storm. The real problems were the people in NYC who decided that it should be a normal day and insisted upon carrying out their average day in cars and taxis, hindering the clean-up efforts of city workers.

Plenty of other places have a lot more snow and wind every year, and they deal with it a lot better than New Yorkers dealt with it that year. I know. It was the year I finally gave up on the City and moved back to Buffalo.

Ok, I'm trying to not get upset with this ridiculous article arguing semantics as I sit here in the Texas Medical Center riding out this very scary and dangerous storm.

I feel that I have a pretty good handle on this topic as somebody who grew up in Miami and endured multiple hurricanes, including Andrew, which I hope you have no problem with me calling a "monster".

You say you want to "guard against hype". I question your perspective and advise you to think critically before you write something like that. A cat 5 is certainly worse than a cat 2 or 3. But we're not on a usual scale here. Its not like we're comparing a thunderstorm to a hurricane. We're distinguishing between the severity of killer storms. People will certainly be hurt, and people will certainly die. To me, "monstrous" is a valid term to use any time death is not just a possiblity but is essentially a guarantee.

I'm scared right now. Scared for my family who isn't here with me in the hospital, scared for my home, scared for the city in general. I would argue we need to hype these hurricanes even more rather than less. 1000s of people took your approach and felt that as a cat.2 or 3 it would be ok to stay in their homes in the evacuation zones. By not heeding warnings, these people put themselves in harms way unnecessarily and the casuality count will no doubt be higher than it should be.

Your job should be to be realisticly report the dangers of weather. Ike is dangerous. Perhaps its not as dangerous as Andrew or Katrina, but be careful when you suggest a storm like this is not "monstrous".


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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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