Published: May 2, 2013
It will be here before you know it. The 2013 northwest Pacific’s tropical cyclone season will begin in earnest on June 1, when the possibility of one of those mean buggers paying a visit to your neck of the woods, particularly Okinawa, increases dramatically.
Okinawa will enter seasonal Tropical Cyclone Condition of Readiness 4 on June 1 and will stay that way until Nov. 30.
Japan and the Korean peninsula don’t experience as many typhoons, nor as strong as Okinawa does, but they do get them from time to time.
Guam remains in TCCOR-4 throughout the year, and it’s a good thing: It lies in the tropics and the most destructive storms to strike the island “Where America’s Day Begins” since the Joint Typhoon Warning Center began keeping records in the late 1950s have occurred in May and December.
Many in our overseas population have never experienced an Atlantic hurricane, though they may have seen them through news accounts on TV, with intrepid reporters out in the much shouting into their microphones from the scene of the weather.
Folks from the East and Gulf Coasts, especially in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, you know what I’m talking about. Folks on the west coast rarely see such storms, and while those in the Midwest may have seen a tornado or five, typhoons are broader, more sustained beasts that can linger over Okinawa or elsewhere for days, pounding your locales with sustained sideways rain and damaging winds that can turn virtually anything into a dangerous projectile, even overturn cars and other vehicles.
The northwest Pacific sees anywhere from 24 to 32 numbered tropical cyclones per season, with anywhere from four to eight either making direct hits or making weather nasty enough that officials raise TCCOR levels as a matter of precaution.
Tropical cyclones are exactly what they sound like, circular bands of convection that form deep in the tropics, far away from land and over very warm sea surface, in Eastern Trade Wind latitudes. Cyclones in the northwest Pacific rotate counterclockwise and move generally west-northwest, and are steered toward land masses by prevailing atmospheric conditions. Tropical cyclones steer toward low-pressure systems, which offer the path of least resistance, and away from high pressure systems, which repel tropical cyclones like two polar magnets rejecting each other.
Tropical depressions feature winds up to 39 mph, tropical storms range from 40 to 74 mph and anything 75 mph or above is classified as a typhoon, and anything above 150 mph is called a super typhoon. (They don’t categorize typhoons the way they do Atlantic hurricanes on the Saffir-Simpson scale). The strongest winds circulate near the center of tropical cyclones and weaken through the storms’ outer bands.
One might envision a Hurricane Katrina-style fishbowl that New Orleans suffered eight years ago, storm surges, supply airlifts and evacuations. The chances of such a thing happening on our Pacific bases is remote, at best; all are located above sea level, and especially on Okinawa, most structures on and off base are built to withstand sustained 198-mph winds for hours, even a day or two at a time. Off base, the buildings may not be esthetically pretty, but they aren’t built to be. The power may go off, the front door glass might break and the back patio or kitchen might take water, but the buildings are like Timex watches; they take a licking and keep on ticking.
Though storms can be frightening, through preparation and good communication, you can generally remain safe throughout any storm that visits your neck of the woods. Keeping your emergency supplies stocked and taking care to avoid rumors and listening to official channels are keys to staying safe, from the minute a storm appears on the JTWC’s models until the last all-clear is sounded.
Here’s how you can go about preparing for a storm:
-- Supplies: A good typhoon closet features enough bottled water, non-perishable food either canned, bottled or packaged and yes, food for your furry friends to last three days, which is how long the power may be out after a strong storm strikes. Ensure you have a working flashlight with spare batteries. A portable battery-operated radio is also a must; the Exchange also sometimes carries radios that don’t need batteries that can be charged with a hand crank.
Take down your trampoline and secure it indoors along with that butane barbeque and those bicycles; securely tie down that which you can’t move indoors. Ensure you’ve gassed up the car and visited the ATM to get enough U.S. and local currency to last three days; again, the power might be out, which means the ATM and gas cans won’t function. Those with satellite dishes might consider bringing those indoors; I had to replace two of them last summer.
Ensure that you have enough entertainment to keep the kiddles at ease and distracted. A few rented movies and video games are a good idea; ensure you also have a handful of old-school board games such as Monopoly or Sorry! on hand if the power goes off.
-- TCCORs: Know and understand what each Tropical Cyclone Condition of Readiness means and what you must do when each are declared.
On Okinawa, the 18th Wing commanding officer speaks in one voice for the entire island, with the help of the 18th Wing Weather Flight, in determining proper TCCORs.
Individual bases in other locales in Japan and Korea make those determinations themselves; sometimes, Yokosuka Naval Base, right along Tokyo Bay, will be in TCCOR 2, while Yokota Air Base, much further inland, remains in TCCOR 4. Same with Chinhae Naval Base in Korea, which may be in TCCOR 1 while Yongsan Garrison, 270 miles northwest, remains all clear.
-- Official channels/social networking: One of the best – and worst – tools to have come along to provide quick and timely information to base residents is social networking, particularly Facebook, which continues to mushroom nearly 10 years after its creation. Commands and bases galore have created their own FB pages and use them to communicate official information and guidance to their members.
Unfortunately, with social networking comes something I call the “Well, I heard …” rumor mill. You remember the old elementary school game of “Telephone” that you used to play, when the teacher would whisper a phrase to the first participant, and by the time it got passed to the last participant, it barely resembled what the teacher said?
The rumor mill works via the same principle. That’s why it’s important to not do rumors. Do not even pay attention to them. Loose lips sink ships, as they saying goes. Pay attention to what the official channels are saying, your unit’s Facebook page or Twitter feed, your commander’s access TV channel, and keep the radio tuned to AFN at all times.
-- 58 mph, in TCCOR 1-E: TCCORs work their way downward from TCCOR 4 to TCCOR 1-E (emergency) as the winds increase and as a typhoon comes closer to your locale. The magic wind-speed number at which point an area enters TCCOR 1-E is 50 knots, or 58 mph. At that speed and higher, winds are considered destructive, it becomes hard just to stand upright, anything from garbage-can lids to bicycles can become dangerous airborne projectiles, tree branches crack and whole trees even fall, cars get shoved sideways or even overturned; you get the idea. In September 2000, Typhoon Saomai was raking Okinawa with winds over 80 mph; foolish me, I thought I’d go stand outside in it for 30 seconds. I didn’t make it 3 seconds.
-- STAY INDOORS: For that reason alone, not just the fact that the U.S. Forces Japan instruction mandates it, make sure you stay indoors throughout the TCCOR 1-E period, and even beyond that, until authorities issue the all-clear, whether you live on or off base. It’s just the smart thing to do, erring on the side of caution.
You may have heard tell of your co-workers or neighbors going out surfing during typhoons or climbing up on the rises at Zampa Point (also known as Bolo Point) or Maeda Point on the island’s west coast to get photographs of the waves breaking. “It’s no problem; I’ve done it many times,” they might say, reassuringly.
Trust: It is the worst thing to do. While the East Coast and Gulf Coast shores are sandy, the shores of Okinawa, like the island itself, are made of coral, which has a much rougher texture. Also, coral deposits may be lurking just below the surface of the waves; if you wipe out off such a wave, you can fall directly into one, or get caught in a vicious rip tide. Or if you venture too close to the edge of a cape, a maverick wave can reach up and pull you into the water.
Not saying it is destined to happen; just saying you take no such risk if you remain indoors. As Camp Foster’s longtime safety guy Shawn Curtis says on the TV, Okinawa is not the place to take such risks because you only get one chance.
Those off base might peek out their windows and see Japanese folk going about their appointed rounds, in cars or on foot, during TCCOR 1-E. Leave the danger to them. It’s their home and they’re used to such things, which they’ve seen all their lives. Somebody who hails from Peoria, Ill., or Bozeman, Mont., is not.
-- Be safe: All of this is designed to ensure you are prepared, listening to the right people and taking every measure to be as safe as possible when one of these buggers strikes. Above all, be safe. And you’ll flourish during tropical cyclone season.