Tropical Storm Claudette strengthened with surprising speed before making landfall in the Florida Panhandle this morning. It’s a good thing the Park Service was ready to protect people and property in the Florida District of storm-vulnerable Gulf Islands National Seashore on very short notice. More storm action is on the way as Hurricane Bill sets a northwest-trending course forn the Lesser Antilles and Tropical Depression Ana gathers energy near the Virgin Islands.
Claudette, the first named tropical storm to strike the U.S. mainland this year, took a path that carried it across the beaches and low-lying reaches of one of America’s most storm-vulnerable places, the Florida District of Gulf Islands National Seashore. When tropical storms come ashore here, even sub-hurricane strength ones like Claudette, howling winds, high tides, pounding waves, torrential rain, and coastal flooding endanger people and property. The Park Service needs to act quickly, implementing plans already in place and employing tested tactics and methods.
The problem with this particular storm is that it fooled the forecasters by suddenly strengthening and then moving ashore much faster than expected. The abruptness of this development put the Park Service and public safety officials on a rush-rush footing. It is a stern reminder that nothing beats being ready.
At Gulf Islands’ Florida District (the Mississippi District was not in the bullseye), the Park Service swung into action with exceptional speed., activating the park's Type 3 incident management team (IMT) and going to operational preparedness level 5 (OPL 5). POL 5 is a hurricane preparedness level that calls for full closure, so Superintendent Jerry Eubanks closed all Florida District facilities as of 4:00 p.m. yesterday.
All Florida District employees except protection rangers were released so they could move to safety, and all non-protection Ft. Pickens residents were moved to alternative lodging. Protection rangers who stayed behind were required to remove personal vehicles, but remained in their residences.
Making sure that park visitors stay out of harm’s way is a central concern, of course. Campers and Night Owl Pass holders were ordered to leave the area because road flooding could be expected. While the J. Earle Bowden Road was not closed, flooding concerns prompted the closing of low-lying roads connecting Pensacola Beach motels and restaurants with historic Fort Pickens and undeveloped areas of the park.
Pensacola Beach residents didn’t need to be told twice to exercise due caution. The area is still recovering from Hurricane Ivan, a storm that devastated the western Florida Panhandle back in 2004.
By tonight, Claudette will have slowed, lost much of its punch, and moved over northeastern Mississippi. (See the accompanying photo with five-day forecast cone.) This storm doesn’t rate very highly on the informal sound-and-fury scale by which people like you and me judge such events. Having caused little appreciable damage with its gale force winds and associated rain, Claudette will be remembered basically as an annoyance. The IMT was scheduled to meet early this morning, mitigate any hazards, and give the go-ahead to reopen the Florida District portion of Gulf Islands National Seashore today. Florida District employees have been ordered to report to work today as scheduled.
Meanwhile, Tropical Depression Ana, which is nearing the Virgin Islands, and Hurricane Bill, which is headed in the general direction of the Lesser Antilles, are being monitored with a wary eye. Virgin Islands National Park, which is directly in Ana's path, is already closed. If you’d like to monitor these tropical cyclones yourself, visit the National Hurricane Center website. Even if you’re not interested in the updates per se, you’ll likely find the maps and photos very interesting.