Watch out Houston, Ike is coming

by Brian Fisher Johnson
Thursday, January 5, 2012

As residents of Galveston, Texas, scramble to evacuate before Hurricane Ike makes landfall tonight, most Houston residents have been told to stay put. But even Houston — about 130 kilometers (80 miles) to the northeast — is in for some extreme weather tomorrow.

That’s because Houston will face the “dirty side” of the hurricane, which in this case is the northeast quadrant of the storm, meteorologists say. Hurricane winds rotate counterclockwise around a central eye, and Ike is moving to the northwest at about 24 kilometers per hour (15 mph). Therefore, in its northeastern quadrant, the circulating winds will be enhanced by the speed of the hurricane’s forward movement.

That makes the southwest quadrant the least violent part of the hurricane, because the northwesterly movement of Ike will partially offset the hurricane’s counterclockwise spin.

“If you going to be in a hurricane, you really want to be in the southwest quadrant,” says Joe Bartosik, a senior meteorologist at WeatherBug, a private weather company with stations along the Gulf Coast.

Unfortunately for the Houston area, it will not get that choice.

Bartosik says the additional winds are not likely to topple buildings, but they will probably increase the damage caused by wind-blown debris. The above-160-kph (100 mph) winds will also cause twisting and turning in the northeast quadrant, Bartosik says, increasing the chances of tornadoes in that area.

New Orleans also came up against the dirty sides of hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Gustav earlier in September, Bartosik added, contributing to the damage caused by those hurricanes.

Analysts are particularly concerned about the Houston area because of its proximity to many oil refineries. Texas alone accounts for one-fourth of U.S. refining capacity.

Because Houston would not be as hard-hit as Galveston, Houston residents were told not to evacuate by authorities hoping to avoid a similar tragedy to the panicked response to Hurricane Rita in 2005, when 110 people were killed during the evacuation.

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