As the American Meteorological Society 30th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology meets at Ponte Vedra this week, Dr. William Gray, who is known for making hurricane season forecasts since 1984, said in an interview with Channel 4 that we don’t know how lucky we are! Having studied the tracks of hundreds of hurricanes, I am sure that our coastline stands out as one that has dodged many dangerous threats.

While working with the Jacksonville Weather Bureau in 1960, I made a presentation at our local hurricane conference. I pointed out the fact that most hurricanes in the Atlantic off our shores move northward as they leave the trade wind belt to the south and begin to be attracted by troughs in the westerlies in the northern latitudes. Also, that the winds are not as strong on the western side of a northward moving hurricane. Director of the Miami Hurricane Center, Gordon Dunn, was impressed with my description of this, as well as the point that hurricanes that approach us from the south are usually weakened by passing over land. A few weeks afterward, hurricane Donna hit the southern end of Florida, and crossing the state entered the Atlantic near Daytona Beach.

Recognizing the importance of having a qualified meteorologist, I decided to enter the field of broadcasting. In 1962, Channel 4 hired me as the only full-time meteorologist on a local TV station. The stage was set in 1964 when hurricane Cleo surprised Miami residents by arriving under cover of darkness with winds up to 135 mph. Hurricane warnings were issued for the entire east coast of Florida. Channel 4 stayed on the air all night as I tracked Cleo’s wind speeds and progress. From these reports, I saw that Cleo was continuing a weakening track over land. The 5 AM Miami advisory stated that Cleo was 20 miles east of New Smyrna Beacn over the Atlantic, but the Daytona Beach wind at that time was from the south at 55 mph, which meant the center of Cleo was still inland. While Jacksonville was still under the hurricane warning, I said Cleo would continue to weaken and that any hurricane force winds may be limited to gusts in squalls near our coast. The center of Cleo passed over Jacksonville Beach on August 28. Its highest wind was only 50 mph.

Realizing that the hurricane warnings were thought of as “crying wolf”, on August 31 I illustrated that Jacksonville’s greatest danger would be a hurricane hitting the coast directly from the east. On September 1, a Cape Verde hurricane formed far out in the Atlantic. As the week progressed, it appeared that Dora would head towards Bermuda. Over the weekend, Dora took a turn toward the west. Recognizing the danger to us, I began taking 16 mm movies of hurricane preparation. I filmed the battery-operated radio, including the car radio, carrying in outside plants, patio furniture and toys, and bracing younger trees for my weather report on Monday.

On Tuesday, Channel 4 began continuous coverage. Being the only meteorologist at the station, it fell to me to be doing the weather broadcasts through the night and all day Wednesday. The media appeared to be mainly concerned for Cape Canaveral, But in my reports I concentrated on barometer readings and the wind direction at Daytona Beach. When Daytona Beach’s wind direction swung to the northwest I was sure that Dora would aim at the St. Augustine area. Dora’s peak winds were 115 mph making it a very dangous storm where it crossed the coast.

Steering currents were weak which caused Dora to slow its west northwest track, and the track by the Daytona Beach radar shows that the eye did not make a bee-line for the coast. It wobbled and made a few loops of shore. Finally, around midnight Wednesday night I got a call from a woman in Green Cove Springs (south of Jacksonville) who said that the winds and rains had stopped, indicating that the eye was inland west of St. Augustine. Dora made history 48 years ago by hitting our coast straight from the east, but inland residents in the Suwannee Valley will long remeber the 17 inches of rain in Live Oak, and the 23 inches that inundated Mayo.

Years ago I remember reading hurricane Forecaster Grady Norton’s projection of the likelihood of a hurricane striking different Florida cities in a given year. For Miami it was one in seven. He said the chance of a hurricane hitting Jacksonville was the heast, only one in 50 years! Hurricane Floyd in 1999 was our greatest threat since Dora. Floyd got too close for comfort before turning to strike North Carolina. The fact is, we have to be prepared every hurricane season. Long range forecasting is not that precise!


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