Hurricane Flora: A Forecaster’s Nightmare

Hurricane Flora rapidly intensified in the 48 hours leading up to landfall, making the tropical cyclone the strongest in recent recorded history to landfall across T&T. In 1963, the abundance of satellite and radar imagery we have grown accustomed to was not the norm which lead to a very late (and first ever, at the time) hurricane warning for T&T.

The lack of forewarning combined with Hurricane Flora’s devastation across Tobago even lead to a month-long Ministerial Inquiry that ultimately absolved the meteorologists at the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service.

Hurricane Flora’s Rapid Intensification

Hurricane Flora’s (1963) reanalysis using data from HURDAT and HURDAT2 showing rapid intensification (in both the new and old analysis of Flora's intensity). (International Best Track Archive for Climate Stewardship – IBTrACS)
Hurricane Flora’s (1963) reanalysis using data from HURDAT and HURDAT2 showing rapid intensification (in both the new and old analysis of Flora’s intensity). (International Best Track Archive for Climate Stewardship – IBTrACS)

In 1963, TIROS VII was forecasters only satellite utilized by the Weather Bureau’s National Weather Satellite Center, relaying information to the National Hurricane Center. On September 26th, forecasters began tracking the disturbance that would eventually form into Flora.

When Tropical Storm Flora formed at 8:00 AM AST September 29th, 1963, it was already beginning to rapidly strengthen. Twelve hours later, by 8:00 PM, Hurricane Flora had formed at 10.3°N, 56.0°W. We know this now after reanalysis, but that the time, forecasters had not seen a satellite image of Flora in two days.

According to the Monthly Weather Review of the 1963 Hurricane Season, on the 29th, the San Juan Hurricane Center requested surface observations from all ships in the area, and a Navy hurricane reconnaissance flight was arranged for daybreak on September 30th. A series of ship reports began to arrive early in the morning, September 30th. A much-delayed weather observation from the Sinon arrived around 3:30 AM AST. The report stated that the barometer at 5:30 PM September 29th had dipped to 1000 millibars with a wind shift from northwest to southwest, but nothing was said about the strength of the winds.

By 4:30 AM AST September 30th, the next ship report (taken at 1:00 AM) came in. The SS Del Alba observed winds from the northeast of 35 knots and a barometer reading of 1006.8 mb with a fall of 5 mb in the past 3 hours.

At 9:07 AM AST, the hurricane hunter plane reached the center of the storm, found a circular eye well defined, central pressure 994 millibars, surface winds in excess of hurricane force, and the wall cloud around the eye eight miles wide.

Hurricane Flora Advisories and Bulletin from the San Juan Weather Bureau on 30th September 1963, with the first hurricane warnings ever issued for T&T.
Hurricane Flora Advisories and Bulletin from the San Juan Weather Bureau on 30th September 1963, with the first hurricane warnings ever issued for T&T.

By 10:00 AM AST, far to late for adequate warning for Tobago, the Del Alba sent in a complete report, with observed winds of tropical-storm-force and rough seas. At 10:00 AM, the San Juan Weather Bureau issued its first bulletin for press, radio and TV.

At 12:00 PM AST, approximately two hours before landfall, the first-ever hurricane warnings are issued by the San Juan Weather Bureau for Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, and the Grenadines south of St. Vincent. The warning called for people in the warning area to “take immediate precaution against hurricane-force winds” and “high storm ties of five to seven feet and torrential rains.” The warning continued, “People living along low-lying beaches and near stream beds should seek higher ground. This is an emergency warning for Northern Trinidad and Tobago and the Southern Grenadines.” At this point, Flora was already about 100 miles east-northeast of Trinidad.

What Happened at The Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service?

Trinidad Guardian, Tuesday 12th November 1963 on the Hurricane Flora Ministerial Inquiry into the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service.
Trinidad Guardian, Tuesday 12th November 1963 on the Hurricane Flora Ministerial Inquiry into the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service.

The Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service had been monitoring this system, according to the T&T Guardian report from the morning of September 28th, 1963 where an area of disturbed weather was over 1000 miles east of Trinidad.

By midday on Sunday, the TTMS had not received any additional information but the TTMS did issue the special request for weather reports from all ships within the area.

At 2:00 AM, Monday 30th September, ship reports in the area indicated winds of 20 knots were being recorded, which is not unusual for T&T. By this time, Flora was about 500 miles east of Trinidad.

Information was received from the San Juan Weather Bureau at 4:12 AM that an aircraft was scheduled to investigate the system, which is also normal for the hurricane season (even to this day). The TTMS received the SS Del Alba report of the 35-knot winds.

By 7:00 AM, the TTMS was alerted by the San Juan Weather Bureau that winds were still at 35 knots, in squalls (bands of convection), but the center of the low pressure was now much closer to Tobago, just 150 miles east of the island.

By 10:00 AM, the advisory issued by the San Juan Weather Bureau was relayed to government officials via the TTMS in T&T and the report of the hurricane-force winds from aircraft reconnaissance had come in. The TTMS issued their first alert at 10 AM, calling all interests to be on alert as winds of 35 MPH and seas up to 13 feet were already recorded.

At 11:00 AM, the TTMS issued their second advisory, this time warning of a dangerous hurricane with winds of 110 MPH. “Immediate steps should be taken to secure all life and property as this hurricane is expected to pass between Trinidad and Barbados later tonight (Monday 30th September 1963).”

Report on weather conditions at Crown Point, Tobago from a Naval officer as Hurricane Flora moved across the island on September 30th 1963.
Report on weather conditions at Crown Point, Tobago from a Naval officer as Hurricane Flora moved across the island on September 30th, 1963.

The infamous “special hurricane advisory” was issued by the TTMS at 1:00 PM, following the hurricane warning issued by the San Juan Weather Bureau at 12:00 PM AST (local time) was received by the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service (TTMS) at 1:00 PM. In the advisory, the TTMS warned that the hurricane would hit at 5:00 PM. This 5:00 PM time frame was in line with the advisory issued at 12:00 PM by the San Juan Weather Bureau, which called for the center moving over the island of Tobago within the next four to five hours. However, this 1:00 PM advisory from the TTMS did not indicate when hurricane-force winds would arrive.

At 3:00 PM, the TTMS’s last advisory was issued, giving the position of Hurricane Flora, but no indication of whether the powerful storm moved across Tobago already. This led the public to believe that the TTMS failed in its job because the timing of the eye moving across Tobago was incorrect.

Trinidad Guardian, Tuesday 12th November 1963 on the Hurricane Flora Ministerial Inquiry into the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service.
Trinidad Guardian, Tuesday 12th November 1963 on the Hurricane Flora Ministerial Inquiry into the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service.

A Ministerial Inquiry was ordered by the Ministry of Public Utilities at the time, Mr. Kamaluddin Mohammed. The Inquiry concluded that while the criticism of the TTMS was unwarranted, “if there was any failure on the part of the Meteorological Service, it was its omission to state clearly in its fourth advisory (issued at 3 PM) that the eye of the hurricane has already passed across Tobago.”

In addition, the Inquiry also recommended that the telephone communications at the TTMS be improved and its teletype facilities (now computers are used) be kept in working order.

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