Ike is big, but no "monster"
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 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.
Any 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?