Hurricane Maria continued its thunderous roll northward as forecasters struggled to pin down a trajectory. Whether the storm makes landfall again could be determined by a zombie.
That’s what former Hurricane Jose will soon be in the meteorological vernacular, a once-dangerous tropical system that has fallen apart and been robbed of its brute force. But it can still have an impact. As Maria moves on from Puerto Rico and the other Caribbean islands it ravaged on Tuesday and Wednesday, the remains of Jose will be hovering over the Atlantic Ocean, with enough life left to influence the larger cyclone’s track.
Depending in part on zombie Jose, Maria could spin out to sea — or into the eastern seaboard.
Forecasting the scenario is difficult because there are so many moving parts. As of late Wednesday, most computer models called for Maria to end up over the ocean. Few meteorologists, though, were willing to lay bets.
“Models don’t handle storm-storm interaction very well,” Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said. “There is a lot more uncertainty than usual. There are two very uncertain things interacting.”
Downgraded to a tropical storm Tuesday, Jose will turn in an ever tighter circle through the rest of the week, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Maria will move toward that circle in the coming days, its ultimate destination as yet unknowable.
And it has been a season of surprises. While many meteorologists expected an active summer of storms, the burst in the last month was a shock. “It is extraordinary, no question about that,” said Joel Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.
Since Aug. 25, when Harvey slammed into Texas, a train of hurricanes have hit the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean. The death toll is over 100.
Damage to the U.S. and Puerto Rico could reach $170 billion from Harvey, Irma and Maria, according to Chuck Watson, a disaster analyst at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia. The total could reach $300 billion when destruction on islands including Barbuda and Dominica are taken into account, Myers said.
In all, six Atlantic storms were strong enough to earn names in the last four weeks. Five became hurricanes and four grew into systems with winds of 111 mph or more. Three Category 4 hurricanes have struck U.S. territory. That’s a first for one season, Masters said.
There’s a 20 to 25 percent chance Maria will threaten North Carolina’s Outer Banks by Tuesday and then swirl by New York’s Long Island and Cape Cod in Massachusetts, said Todd Crawford, lead meteorologist at the Weather Company in Andover, Massachusetts. About $8.7 trillion in insured property lies between Maine and North Carolina, and some 39 percent of that is in New York, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York.
“These areas should be thinking about preparing for the less likely scenario of a direct landfall,” Crawford said. Masters said it could be an either-or situation. If Virginia and North Carolina take a hit, then the Northeast will be spared. Another scenario has southeastern Massachusetts absorbing a blow.
As Jose falls apart, there’s a chance the high-pressure system that’s forcing it into its loop will grow more robust, Masters said. This would push Maria into the coast. “I am not at all confident Maria is going out to sea,” he said.
A saving grace: Jose held its hurricane power for a long while, stirring up a lot of cold water from the depths of the Atlantic. Maria needs a warm ocean to keep up its strength.
Still, for now, it’s smart to prepare, Myers said. “You ought to be cautious, because a lot can happen.”