He may be nearly 1,000 miles from the storm's center, but few people in America have as good idea of what Hurricane Irene is doing -- and is about to do -- as Jeff Masters.
From his home in Ann Arbor, Mich., Masters has kept a calm and methodical account of the status of Irene on WunderBlog, a blog that's part of the Weather Underground network. As Irene bears down on the Atlantic Coast, his site has become a must-read source of information for weather junkies and nervous East Coast residents alike.
"I don't use the word dangerous often, and if I call something dangerous, you'd better pay attention," Masters said by phone Saturday afternoon. "I started doing that back when this first formed as a tropical storm. ... There's a lot of uncertainty in meteorology, but let me tell you, this storm scared the bejesus out of me."
On a normal day in the hurricane season, Masters says, his blog gets 80,000 page views. On Friday, with the storm bearing down on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, he got 630,000 views.
His latest outlook, from 11 a.m. Saturday morning, is typical of his sort of meteorologist break-room chitchat style:
Hurricane Irene roared ashore over Cape Lookout, North Carolina at 7:30 am this morning. The Cedar Island Ferry Terminal measured sustained winds of 90 mph, gusting to 110 mph at 7:19am, and a trained spotter on Atlantic Beach measured sustained winds of 85 mph, gusting to 101 mph at 10:35 am. The Hurricane Hunters measured 80 mph winds over water at the time of landfall. Winds at the Cape Lookout, North Carolina buoy, which the eye passed directly over, peaked at 67 mph as Irene made landfall. At 10am EDT, top winds observed at Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina were 53 mph, gusting to 73 mph. Winds are rising now along the coast of Virginia, with sustained winds of 56 mph, gusting to 62 mph observed at 10 am EDT at Chesapeake Bay Light. Satellite loops show a large but deteriorating storm with dry air intruding to the southwest. The radar presentation of Irene visible on the Norfolk, VA radar is very impressive--Irene is dropping torrential rains over a huge area.
"I'm not too worried about the wind," Masters said in the phone conversation. "But the big damage will be from the storm surge and fresh water flooding. That is going to be the big worry. But wind is still a concern: We're going to have a lot of trees get uprooted."
"It's a pretty big area that's getting pounded now," he went on. "Right now, it's hovering over the Virginia-North Carolina border, and it's maintaining its strength. It's such a huge piece of air spinning."
From his personal computer at home, where he has been working 12-hour days the past week, Masters monitors inputs from the National Weather Service, the National Hurricane Center and the storm surge models at SUNY Stonybrook, as well as the rain and wind gauges on the Weather Underground site and some of the 3,000 informed comments his blog gets every day.
As for the television correspondents out in the storm, getting whipped by wind and rain on live TV? "I don't have cable," he said. "When I'm on vacation, I watch [the Weather Channel], and I think, man this is so hyped up and dramatic. It's the drama right now -- all science TV has to be hyped up."
"I'm a scientist, and I try to speak from a science point of view and do a little bit of education," he added, " but at the same time provide information people need to help protect their property and keep their lives safe. As a result, I probably have less hype -- maybe I should hype more even."
Masters started his blog in 2005, in the days before Hurricane Katrina catastrophically hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Experiences like that have helped inform his sense of urgency when it comes to the dangers of storms, but they have also given him pause: When Hurricane Rita hit Texas, one month later, evacuations led to more deaths than the storm itself caused.
"Two days ago, on some of the storm charts there was the potential for this to be the worst storm ever, and I was wondering how best to phrase that. There was a 10 percent chance of that happening. How do you talk about a 10 percent chance? Where do you put the balance? It's hard, because if you emphasize the worst-case scenario and it doesn't happen, then people will get complacent. It's always a very tough call about how to talk about the probabilities."
For now, Masters said, the probabilities are out to window, and all there is left to do is get out of harm's way, and watch what happens. He supports the evacuations in New York, he added.
"Once something's come ashore, I really don't look at forecasts anymore. It's kind of a foregone conclusion what's going to happen now: It's not going to intensify, not going to weaken much, because it's so huge, and the conditions are not changing much. There's not a lot of mystery about what the storm's going to do -- and in a way, that's kind of nice."