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KEEPING AN EYE ON HURRICANE IRENE
By Joe Brancatelli
You'll find some jokes along the way in our coverage of Hurricane Irene, the first big storm of the Atlantic summer season. But there's nothing funny about a "major" hurricane bringing strong winds and heavy rains to the heart of the nation's most-populous region. (As always, read backward, like a Pinter play, since the most recent dispatch is at the top.)
FlightStats.com Global Delay Tracker
Weather Channel Hurricane Irene Page
National Weather Service National Hurricane Center
8/29/11, 3:15PM ET, MONDAY
WASN'T THAT A TIME
Hello from the plush Hotel Sierra in Fishkill, New York, the new temporary worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters. In case you've forgotten, Hotel Sierra is one of the Lodgeworks-owned chains that Hyatt is purchasing lock, stock and management and folding into the fast-expanding Hyatt portfolio.
Weather permitting, this is our last Irene-inspired update. As the great Pete Seeger, who lives just a few miles from here, would sing: "Good Night, Irene." No one will miss this particular storm.
The air travel system is getting up off its knees and very slowly beginning to reassemble itself. The invaluable FlightStats.com is already reporting 1,900 cancellations and 1,500 delays today nationwide. Virtually all of them involve airports hobbled by Irene: Newark, New York/JFK, New York/LGA, Boston/Logan, Philadelphia and, to a lesser degree, the Washington-area airports of National, Dulles and BWI.
As airlines work to reposition their assets--a bloodless technocratic term for flight crews and aircraft--you can expect larger-than-normal disruptions for much of this week. It's imperative to check your flight status before heading for the airport and then not be shocked if your flight is cancelled after you've arrived at the airport. It is the nature of putting things back together again in the airline world.
Some other things to think about in the aftermath:
1--If you were dinged for a change fee by your carrier because you changed your flight before it put in a travel-waiver policy, contest the charge. If the airline subsequently cancelled your original flight or added waivers after you rebooked, fight the fee.
2--If you're stuck with an uncomfortable or ill-suited reaccommodation flight or, worse, are still on standby, keep calling the airline looking to make a change. A lot of folks holding confirmed reservations won't be making their flight, either because they have decided not to fly or because they held duplicate bookings. So keep trying to change if you need to do it.
3--Don't expect to book a trip this week if you haven't already done so. Most flights are sold out as the airlines work to clear the backlog of existing travelers and grapple with continuing cancellations.
4--Check road conditions before you head to the airports. Irene turned out to be more of a rain and flood "event" than a wind storm. Many roads are still under water--a huge chunk of the New York State Thruway is still closed, for example, and many New Jersey roads have been swamped by inland flooding. Your airport might be open and your flight might be going, but you might not be able to get to the airport.
Finally, a bit of cosmic reality. A few JoeSentMe members originally sent me notes about how they bested the storm. One was thrilled to be on a US Airways flight into Philadelphia that beat Saturday's bad weather. Soon after getting home, however, his power went out and there was standing water in his finished basement. Another member was sanguine about how she could blissfully read and watch the sump pump work while it rained hard on her New England home. This morning, however, she learned a tree feel on one of her family's automobiles.
Moral of the tale: As one of those old TV commercials used to say, "You can't fool Mother Nature."
8/28/11, 6:15PM ET, SUNDAY
REPORT FROM THE BUNKER
If one more politician goes in front of a microphone and says that his or her town, village, city or state dodged a bullet from Hurricane Irene, I think I'll get a gun.
At the vast, worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters in the Hudson Valley, this is what dodging a bullet is like: The power has been out since about 8am after a tree fell on the power line, ignited a spectacular fireball and almost pulled down the local transformer. The tree also took out the phone company's cable, so landline phones are out. Mobile phone service is wonky. It'll be days, they say, before the local commuter train will be fully restored because of flooding on the tracks, deteriorated track beds and flooded train yards. And we're literally trapped since the downed tree cut off one side of our road and state troopers have shut down the other side due to mudslides and fallen rocks ahead.
So take what they are saying about bullet-dodging with a rockslide of salt. At least a dozen people are dead. Millions are without power and it may take a week to fully restore service. Flooding threatens more lives and property since seawalls were breached and inland rivers are overflowing their banks throughout the Northeast and MidAtlantic. One Connecticut locality reports that the flooding is so bad that they are at the 500-year mark. Roads are covered with downed trees and other debris, so car travel is tricky. There's been substantial damage to our beachfronts.
I am NOT complaining. Honest. Things could have been much worse from Carolina to Canada, where Irene, now a tropical storm, is headed. But I don't think dodging a bullet is exactly the metaphor they were looking for. Just because Wall Street wasn't washed away in a tidal surge or the Liberty Bell isn't bobbing down a Philadelphia street doesn't mean we've dodged a bullet. When the damage estimates come in, they will be staggering. And productivity next week is going to be rather limited.
Travel? Best as I can tell from here in the bunker (and with the aid of reporting by Marlene Fedin and other JoeSentMe contributors), here's what's happening:
1--Washington area airports--Dulles, National and BWI--are working on very limited schedules. It should be better on Monday, but don't expect full service until Tuesday at the earliest.
2--Airports elsewhere in Virginia and North Carolina are getting back to normal. Charlotte, the big US Airways hub, is running with some cancellations.
3--There's no chance of operations at the New York area airports until around Monday afternoon. The region is still being buffeted by backside gusts in the 55mph range. And with aircraft and crews out of position, expect it to be Wednesday before anything approaches "normal."
4--New England airports are an open question because the storm is still whacking the area. Some airlines have suggested they'll restart at Boston/Logan tomorrow, but that will consist of extraordinarily limited service.
5)--Philadelphia may start getting some service tomorrow, but I think Wednesday is the earliest you can expect anything like "normal" operations.
If it matters, FlightStats.com reported 6,700 cancellations today in the United States, almost all of them directly related to the East Coast storms. Bottom line on air travel in this pre-Labor Day week: Prepare for misery.
You'll be told your flight is going only to arrive at the airport and be cancelled. There'll be plenty of delays, lots of equipment switches and a full boat of annoyance. Some flights won't have crews. Some crews won't have aircraft. It's inevitable. The best way to handle this: Don't travel if you don't have to go. If you're working to get home, be patient and be persistent (but not nasty).
It goes without saying that airlines will be nearly impossible to reach by phone this week. And while you should absolutely check your flight status on the Web before heading for the airport, don't expect it to be totally accurate. One more thing: If you weren't scheduled to fly this week, don't be thinking you might grab a flight now. Most flights are packed as airlines work to reaccommodate passengers caught in the orgy of cancellations of the last few days.
By the way, as I write this in the gloom of an unlit desk in the late afternoon, we've been hit with some of the highest winds of the weekend. We haven't dodged this bullet. We're still trying to outrun it.
8/27/11, 11 PM ET, SATURDAY
GOOD NIGHT, IRENE (COME ON, I HAD TO USE IT ONCE)
An update on where we stand right now, with Hurricane Irene hammering Delaware and Maryland.
According to FlightStats.com, more than 3,200 flights have been cancelled today and more than 2,500 were delayed. Well, duh… But it is worth noting that the major Eastern airports that didn't close--Philadelphia, Washington/Dulles and Washington/National, Baltimore/Washington, Boston/Logan--were the ones hobbled by massive cancellations and delays.
Okay, Sunday. All five New York airports run by the Port Authority--JFK, LGA, Newark, Stewart and Teterboro--will remain closed. Long Island/McArthur will be closed. Philadelphia closed about 10:30 this evening and said that it will stay closed until at least 4pm Sunday. Other airports--Hartford, Boston/Logan, Providence/T.F.Green, Manchester/Boston Regional--will be as good as closed. The Boston area rapid transit system will be mostly closed.
Airports in Washington and Baltimore will be open, but US Airways has cancelled its entire schedule at Washington/National. Charlotte will be open.
As the storm chugs toward New York--timed to hit at high tide tomorrow morning--we also need to report that Irene is now spawning tornadoes. There are tornado watches stretching from Connecticut to Delaware. Several have been confirmed this evening. The storm is still throwing off 80 miles per hour of sustained winds and it is moving at 13 miles per hour.
The slow movement and the massive amounts of rain are Irene's most damaging aspects. Nine people have been killed by the storm and related events. About two million people from North Carolina to Delaware are now or have been without power. There are no reliable damage estimates yet.
A word or two on the possibility of flying to and from the East on Monday. In a nutshell, it looks rather depressing. So many planes and crews are out of position that schedules will be extremely sketchy. Some travelers scheduled to fly on Monday are already reporting their flights have been cancelled.
8/27/11, 8:45AM ET, SATURDAY
NO PLANES, NO TRAINS, NO NOTIFICATION
We'll have a lot to discuss about how airlines and airports have handled this hurricane--let's just say they have been dreadful communicators--but that is a topic for another time.
Right now, let's just look at what's happened and is happening.
1 -- New York City and the wider metropolitan area is literally in shutdown mode. The subways and commuter lines begin to close at noon. All five airports run by the Port Authority--Newark, Kennedy, LaGuardia, Stewart and Teterboro--will close around noon, too. Although some departures will be allowed, no arrivals will be permitted. Monday afternoon would be a happy guess for substantial flight resumption. It could now take until Wednesday before things really get back to normal.
2 -- Boston/Logan says it is "operating a thinned schedule" all weekend and virtually nothing will move tomorrow.
3 -- Philadelphia is beginning to shut down its mass transit and commuter service and everything will be closed just after midnight. There'll be some airport operations today, but expect titanic delays and snap cancellations. If you don't have to go, don't.
3 -- Washington and Baltimore area airports are operating with heavy delays and cancellations.
4 -- Airports in Southern Virginia and North Carolina are under the most immediate threat--Hurricane Irene finally made landfall about 7:30am--and very little is operating.
5 -- So far today, FlightStats.com has reported more than 3,000 cancellations. Expect at least that many tomorrow and probably around 1,500 on Monday.
6 -- Amtrak has heavy cancellations today in the Northeast Corridor and trains south of Washington. No trains will operate at all in the Northeast Corridor tomorrow.
7 -- Hotels at the edges of the storm--in Western Pennsylvania, upstate New York, western Virginia--are reporting very strong last-minute bookings. Many are now sold out. If you're planning to bug out, you may have to go fairly far afield to secure accommodations.
Hurricane Irene itself has been downgraded to Category 1 and winds are currently about 85 miles an hour. But it's not wind speed itself that makes this storm such a threat. It's big (more than 700 miles across), which means it'll cover a wide area and make it nearly impossible to avoid. It's packing a lot of rain, which will guarantee lots of falling trees and downed power lines in the already saturated East. It's moving slowly, which magnifies the storm. And it may bring very high storm surge, which could cause massive flooding in low-lying areas both obvious (the barrier island of New Jersey, Long Island) and not too obvious (Lower Manhattan).
One more note: Besides their appalling general announcements, the airlines have mostly failed with their automated notification systems, too. I'm hearing from many flyers that the carriers never notified them of their flight's cancellation. In recent years, the airlines have always explained away their lack of public transparency with the claim that they were privately notifying affected travelers. This time, not so much. They have generally been slow to update their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, too.
Worst offender: New York's Port Authority, which doesn't maintain independent Twitter feeds or Facebook pages for its airports. It apparently never bothered to send out its own opt-in alerts, either. And it has barely bothered to explain the airport closure on its Web sites. On the Newark Airport Web site, for example, the current "alert" (not updated since 10pm last night) helpfully tells you that Tony Romas restaurant in Terminal A will be open 24 hours. But it conveniently forgets to tell you that the airport itself will close for arrivals at noon today or that the airport's largest carrier (Continental) had previously dumped its Newark flights on Saturday and Sunday.
8/26/11, 8PM ET, FRIDAY
AIRLINES LOSE THE GAME OF CHICKEN
Finally, the airlines' strategy for dealing with Hurricane Irene is clear: They played a game of chicken with the storm and they lost.
United and Continental announced moments ago what was intellectually preordained at least a day ago: Saturday and Sunday are washouts and they will be almost totally grounded at Newark, New York/LGA and New York/Kennedy. Service won't resume until Monday and I wouldn't put much stock in their claim about "normal" operations then. Raleigh, Richmond and Norfolk flights are off for Saturday. Seven airports in New York State and New England, including Boston, will lose United and Continental flights on Sunday. That's a total of about 2,300 flights.
Delta, on the other hand, is still playing chicken, especially in New York. It says it has cancelled about 1,300 flights around the region this weekend, but apparently hopes to get some flights into Kennedy Airport on Saturday (especially from Europe) and fly the aircraft back to Europe on Saturday evening. It has already announced that flights from New York/LGA, New York/JFK, Newark and Philadelphia are scrubbed on Sunday.
US Airways, which has hubs in Charlotte and Philadelphia and substantial service in Washington and New York, will only say that it is "reduc[ing]" its schedule, but has offered no specifics. How very US Airways…
Meanwhile, for those of you traveling on international carriers, most have finally published waivers for change fees through about August 30. That includes British Airways, Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic and many more. If you were dinged for a change fee earlier this week, dispute the charge with your credit card company.
A strategic point: If you don't want to fly in the next few days, get even with the airlines by playing chicken with them. Wait for them to cancel the flights, then you can get a refund and rebook at your leisure. If you reschedule before they cancel, your options are limited by their waiver terms.
A final note: Lots of luck calling the airlines. Their call centers are jammed, although the super-elite lines do seem to be functioning close to normal. And guess what: Their Web sites, where they want you to go to change your flights, are buckling under the load. You'll have to be VERY patient because airlines don't want to pay to staff the call centers and they apparently don't want to pay for sufficient bandwidth, either.
8/26/11, 3PM ET, FRIDAY
WE'RE CANCELING, BUT IT'S A SECRET
With virtually no publicity, JetBlue has cancelled around 900 flights in New York and Boston, its two largest flight centers. These cancellations run through Monday. Meanwhile, American Airlines has announced (just barely) that it is closing down operations beginning at noon tomorrow in Washington for at least 24 hours.
I'm concerned for two reasons:
1) The airlines are moving far too slowly on these preemptive cancellations. The longer they wait to cancel, the more people go to airports and get stuck there. Remember, most of us aren't on the road just now because this is a relatively slack business-travel period. That means the bulk of the flyers are inexperienced vacationers. They don't have the knowledge, the financial flexibility and the savvy to negotiate these problems. These will be the people you see sleeping in wet, dark airport terminals for days at a time.
2) The airlines are doing an awful job publicizing their actions. Their Web sites are out of date and their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are weirdly quiet on many of these developments. It is inexplicable, especially since they did a relatively decent job in winter keeping people in touch with developments.
For what it's worth, you can find the Web sites and Twitter feeds for airlines, airports and hotels at our special page: http://news.biztravelife.com/twitter.html
You may also find news at the Yahoo! airlines page: http://biz.yahoo.com/n/y/y0002.html
News from Reuters can be found here: http://news.airwise.com/index.html
In case you need an idea of how serious this situation may become, New York is closing the subway system starting at noon Saturday. That is basically the nation's largest city saying it is closed for the duration. I'll continue to update you as necessary. I hope by now, though, you're where you need to be because flights into and out of the East will stop moving no later than Saturday morning.
8/26/11, 10AM ET, FRIDAY
POWER...AND PLANNING FOR NOT HAVING ANY
What concerns me now is power. The ground in the East has already been saturated by heavy rains this month. More rain and a little wind will take out trees and trees will take out power lines. Besides the obvious travel implications of Hurricane Irene, you may be dealing with no power for several days at a time. As Will Allen, our man in the Carolinas, reminded me this morning, parts of North Carolina went NINE DAYS without power during one of the last big storms.
So what does no power mean?
+ You'll need to keep mobile devices powered by battery. Make sure they are fully charged and you have back-up batteries. The cell networks might go down eventually as the battery backups on towers are exhausted. So I hope you have access to landlines AND a non-battery operated phone connected to the landline.
+ You'll need to keep in touch with news, so have a battery-operated radio handy. I hope you have a hand-cranked radio, too.
+ Make sure your portable computers are fully powered before the storm hits.
+ Get plenty of batteries for flashlights and other battery-operated lighting sources.
+ If you have a gas stove, great. If not, do you have a gas-powered grill? If so, make sure you have back-up propane. If you have a wood-burning oven, have plenty of wood stored in a dry place.
+ Stock up on basic, non-refrigerated, non-frozen food. And if you're buying cans, make sure you have a traditional can opener.
+ Get plenty of water and, if you have coolers, get ice. If you fill up your bathroom tub with water, make sure to cover the drain with a plastic liner. That will limit leakage through the drain, which really isn't designed to last for days or even hours.
+ If you have oil-powered lamps, make sure you have plenty of oil.
+ Fill up your cars with gasoline. No power means no pumping gas.
+ Have cash. No power means no ATMs.
+ Stock up on disposable plates, cups and utensils.
+ Plastic bags are priceless. The big ones are great for garbage disposal and basic storage needs. The ziptop type are valuable for food storage and keeping important documents and other items dry.
8/25/11, 6:30PM ET, THURSDAY
SLOWLY I TURN...
I would have gone with Waiting for Irene as the headline, but I was thinking that this is even too weird for Beckett.
Hurricane Irene, which was expected to start harassing Florida as early as last night, now won't even make landfall until Friday night. And it's likely to be somewhere near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. At least that's the guess of the moment of the weather wonks. Expect several more revisions before this thing hits. It's already moving much more slowly--and much further to the east--than originally predicted last weekend.
So I've settled on "slowly I turn" since this storm sure is taking its sweet time making its way up the coast. I suggest you brush up on your classic Vaudeville routine by consulting The Three Stooges or Lucy or Abbott and Costello.
Jokes aside, this will be ugly when Irene finally does arrive. High winds, copious amounts of rain, a gigantic storm surge and serious flooding are expected. And since the ground in most of the East is already saturated, that means lots of falling trees and trees have a strange habit of falling on power lines.
(Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, is talking about a hundred-year flood. Of course, New Jersey seems to have a hundred-year flood twice a year.)
Travel? Well, now it's looking like Saturday, Sunday and Monday will be the bad days. I expect airlines to start precautionary cancellations as early as tomorrow evening. You may not get anything out after tomorrow night and flights in the East may not return to normal until Tuesday. You know the drill. Since airplanes and crews will be out of position, the end of the storm won't mean the end of disruptions.
Amtrak has already begun to cancel trains south of Washington beginning tomorrow. Expect more--and more cancellations further north--as the situation deteriorates.
Here's an idea: How about canceling all your travel until after Labor Day. What would hurt?
Meanwhile, the airlines have finally rolled the dice and begun posting reaccommodation policies. Most allow changes as early as today's flights and some will allow you to reschedule as late as September 6. Here is what has been posted:
US AIRWAYS http://www.usairways.com/TravelCenter/Advisories.aspx
8/25/11, 6:15PM ET, THURSDAY
THE WELL-PREPARED BUSINESS TRAVELER
Without putting too fine a point on it, this weekend also marks the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. If Hurricane Irene whacks the heart of the heavily populated East Coast, it could be the worst storm since Katrina. If you're wise, you'll follow some of the preparation tips I offered four years ago.
8/25/11, 1AM ET, THURSDAY
FLEE--AND BRING FRENCH TOAST!
Here are the new best guesstimates on Hurricane Irene, which is now a Category 3 storm and threatens a wide swath of the Eastern Seaboard and Atlantic Canada.
If the weather geeks are right--and they haven't been so far--Hurricane Irene is now an imminent threat to the Carolinas starting in the early hours of Saturday morning. If they are right, it could hit as a Category 3 with winds in the 120-miles-per-hour range, damaging rains and flooding. Obviously, that would also mean havoc at US Airways' Charlotte hub.
The modeling then has the storm reaching the Delmarva region--Hello Washington/National, Dulles and BWI--starting on Saturday evening. It would be Category 2 at that stage with winds of about 100 miles per hour.
But wait, there's more. Sunday will be nightmarish for Philadelphia, Newark, New York/La Guardia and New York/Kennedy, and Boston. We're talking Category 1 at this stage, with winds of about 85 miles an hour. Monday will be northern New England and Atlantic Canada's turn and they'll face tropical-storm force winds and rain.
The problem? This storm was supposed to be lashing Florida by now. Yet Irene is still in the Caribbean and all of the current modeling says Florida won't really be affected.
It's not so much that the weather folks are wrong, it's that their earlier errors have essentially frozen the airlines in place. Except for Frontier Airlines, which isn't much of a factor in the East, none of the major carriers has yet begun canceling flights or offering travel waivers for mainland flying. They are still "studying" things.
Which means that if you want to change your plans for the weekend or for Sunday evening/early Monday business travel, you can't yet.(At least you can't without paying the rapacious change fees.) And if the storm does hit as currently predicted, airlines will now have to scramble to move planes away from the East Coast hubs. That means lots of last-minute cancellations and unhappy flyers.
(By the way, Amtrak is also in the "study" mode for now. Meanwhile, government officials in various affected states are already predicting lots of road flooding, beach erosion, downed power lines and electrical outages. So have some backup batteries around so you can continue to play Angry Birds unabated.)
I suggest paying careful attention to your favorite weather source--The Weather Channel is already in its 24-hour storm coverage--and be very flexible with whatever travel plans you may have in the next four or five days.
An evacuation of Carolina's flood-prone Outer Banks is already underway. And folks all along the East Coast are being urged to prepare and stock up on emergency goods. Which means people rush to supermarkets to buy milk, eggs and bread because, apparently, you shouldn't be caught in a storm without French Toast. Or something like that…
Meanwhile, did you notice that Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple just hours after Gaddafi disappeared in Libya. Coincidence? I don't think so. I mean, have you ever seen them together?
8/23/11, 3PM ET, TUESDAY
SURE. OF COURSE. NOW AN EARTHQUAKE, TOO...
Okay, new definition of the coming of the Apocalypse: Monitoring the Libya situation while writing about an upcoming hurricane when an earthquake hits.
Anyway, the 5.9 earthquake that had its epicenter in Virginia has shaken things up as far north as Toronto and as far west as Detroit.
Travel impact? The control towers at New York/Kennedy and Newark were evacuated and that led to a ground stop at those airports. Some planes headed to the New York metropolitan area were diverted to Boston. Traffic is returning to normal.
Terminal A at Washington/National was evacuated while officials investigated a smell of gas. At least one terminal at Baltimore/Washington was evacuated, but I can't tell yet whether that was because of an unattended bag or the earthquake.
Delays? A few, but the big tie-ups seem to be at the security checkpoints. So many people self-evacuated that there are large crowds at some airports' security checkpoints.
Train and commuter rail service around the region seems largely unaffected. Trains have been slowed and there are some serious delays on the Maryland railroads.
And you know what Gaddafi says: Apres moi, le deluge. And, apparently, au seisme. (And, no I don't remember whether seisme takes an accent grave or aigu.)
By the way, here at the vast, worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters about 50 miles north of Manhattan, the building shuddered a bit. (It's old.) And I got pushed in my rolling desk chair.
8/23/11, 1:30PM ET, TUESDAY
IRENE IS A FICKLE STORM
Hurricane Irene has strengthened significantly, gotten substantially larger--and changed track, too.
According to the weather wonks, the storm is now Category 2 (winds up to 110 miles per hour). Irene, which has been gathering strength as it hangs over the warm Caribbean waters, has also gained definition (that's bad) and size. It is expected to become a "major" hurricane of Category 3 strength (winds of as high as 130 miles per hour) before making landfall in the United States.
Most importantly for business travelers, however, the track of the storm now has it skirting the Atlantic Coast of Florida and bearing down on the Carolinas. The barrier island of Ocracoke, southernmost part of North Carolina's low-lying Outer Banks, is already under a mandatory evacuation order for Thursday morning.
Most likely to be heavily affected now: US Airways' Charlotte hub and, possibly, Washington/National and Washington/Dulles airports. You can see the expected track and current timing estimates on the home page of the Weather Channel at (http://www.weather.com).
Airlines have issued a variety of (and varied) travel reaccommodations for the next four or five days. At the moment, however, most of the airline policies are tied to Caribbean islands, but I expect that to change shortly.
If you have travel plans for the Caribbean, Florida, the Southeast and MidAtlantic in the next four or five days, be sure to check with The Weather Channel and the National Weather Service's warnings page at http://forecast.weather.gov/shmrn.php?mz=amz080.
8/22/11, 11AM ET, MONDAY
IT'S HURRICANE TIME AGAIN
A developing weather situation may disrupt travel plans throughout the Southeast later this week.
First, the good news: We got all the way to a storm named Irene before there was a hurricane to disrupt travel. And it is late August, which is the height of the storm season. Okay, the rest of the news is bad.
Tropical Storm Irene was upgraded to hurricane status overnight after it whacked Puerto Rico with heavy rain and wind. About a half-million people may still be without power on the island. Irene is now a Category 1 storm, which means winds of at least 75 miles per hour.
According to the latest tracking, the storm will remain largely offshore this week, thus allowing it to pick up strength. When and if it makes U.S. landfall, it may be a Category 2 storm. Category 2 storms have winds of at least 100 miles per hour.
Okay, now that the meteorological matter is dealt with, we can consider the travel implications. The current storm track has it moving up the Atlantic Coast of Florida by Thursday and then possibly hitting Georgia and the Carolinas by the weekend.
Given how the airline world works, expect carriers to be moving aircraft out of Florida by the end of the day Wednesday. If all remains the same, I doubt there'd be too many flights into Atlantic Coast Florida on Thursday.
Even more worrisome is the gigantic Atlanta hub, home to both Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways. Should the storm make its way near Atlanta, expect a large number of cancellations later in the week. Ditto should the storm hook east instead and head near US Airways' Charlotte hub.
Of course, all this is conjecture. I'm no weatherman and, as Yogi Berra once said, predictions about the future are the hardest ones of all. So keep your eyes and ears open and your plans flexible if you're headed to or from the Southeast later this week.
Because it's big news for the weather geeks, Weather.com already has a huge section of its home page dedicated to Hurricane Irene. Might be worth checking in from time to time.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.