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Daddy, will monster hurricanes come to B.C.?

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Pacific Ocean's tropical storms tend to move toward the Philippines and leave us alone

Posted by Rob Klovance

Each year we watch from a great distance as hurricanes batter the Gulf coast or east coast of the U.S., wreaking havoc and causing widespread power outages. And this week we witnessed, via TV and the web, as New York City and the New Jersey shoreline bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy.

Included in that West Coast audience was my 8-year-old son, who watched the flooding in NYC and wondered why hurricanes like this are so foreign to B.C. and the Pacific Coast.

I knew it had a lot to do with the generally cooler waters off our coast, but I turned to one of BC Hydro's own meteorologists for the informed answer. Not surprisingly, he jumped at the chance to explain.

"In the Pacific, these tropical storms drift westward toward the Philippines, then either head toward Taiwan and on into mainland China, or curve northward toward Japan," says Doug McCollor, BC Hydro's manager or meteorology and climate services. "Because of the earth's rotation, the trade winds, and typical tropical storm development and movement, the west coast of Canada and the U.S. doesn't see tropical storms the way the U.S. east coast does."

Because hurricanes tend to form near the equator in the central Atlantic and Pacific oceans, McCollor explains, they get caught up in low-latitude trade winds that push them westward.

"Atlantic hurricanes move westward to the Caribbean, or even develop in the Caribbean, like Sandy did," he says. "Then, hurricanes start curving northward, and either continue northwestward into the Gulf of Mexico (like hurricane Katrina in 2005), or, like Sandy, move northward up the offshore waters off the U.S. east coast."

Here in B.C., we're even immune to tropical storms that develop off the coast of Mexico. Those storms will sometimes hit the Mexican coast but usually head west out to the open ocean, and rarely will they head north.

"These hurricanes do not drift up the west coast of the U.S.," he says. "A major contributing factor is ocean temperatures; hurricanes need very warm temperatures, 27°C or above, to form and develop. Because of the Gulf Stream off the U.S. east coast and the relatively shallow Gulf of Mexico, these warm ocean waters can be found much further north than the colder waters of the eastern Pacific."

Normally, New Yorkers worry more about the cost of their electricity — it's more than double the rate we pay in B.C. — than about actually losing it. But Sandy was a true "monster" that actually got uglier when a cold front on the eastern seaboard fuelled the storm, and a high pressure system over Newfoundland blocked it from heading north.

Be prepared: storms and outages happen here, too

Hurricane Sandy left more than eight million Americans without power and turned New York into a ghost town two days before Halloween. It came in the same week as a powerful earthquake off the coast of Haida Gwaii that also served as a reminder that we need to be ready for emergencies here in B.C.

We don't have to look too far back for a picture of what storms can do to our coast. BC Hydro crews remember December of 2006 with a mix of anguish and pride. At the height of storm season, a major storm knocked down hundreds of trees in Vancouver's Stanley Park on December 15th, leaving about 260,000 customers without power.

BC Hydro crews worked quickly to restore power — of the 800,000 BC Hydro customers who lost power between October 2006 and mid-January 2007, 80% had their power restored within 48 hours.

Back in 1962, Typhoon Freda took out more than 3,000 trees in Stanley Park, including 500-year-old cedars.

B.C.'s 'Wet Coast' may not get the hurricane-force winds that the Atlantic coast experiences, but after a long period of rain, it doesn't take a lot of wind to down trees and cause outages in B.C.

"Anywhere that the ground is already saturated from previous heavy rainfall, strong winds can then topple trees that might have stayed upright if the ground were still dry," says McCollor. "Dry, solid ground is a much firmer anchor for trees than moist, soggy ground. Sometimes the whole rootball comes up with a downed tree in soggy conditions."

Be prepared for outages, and report them to us

Get an emergency kit together and learn about other important ways you can prepare for a power outage.

And if an outage occurs, call us to report it. While we'll soon be relying on smart meters to let us know immediately where and when the power is out, the meters infrastructure is not fully activated and we continue to rely on you to report outages.

Call BC Hydro at 1 888 POWERON (1 888 769 3766), *HYDRO (*49376) on your cell phone or report online. Tell us about the outage so we can send the right crews and equipment to the right location.

Rob Klovance is managing editor of bchydro.com.