Hurricane Ernesto was the fifth named storm and first hurricane of the 2006 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Peaking briefly with winds of minimal hurricane force, Ernesto was only a hurricane for 12 hours. Despite being modest in stature, the tropical system did have its share of oddities. The storm, which also made four landfalls including three in separate locations along the U.S. Eastern coastline, packed a stronger punch further north, especially after it made its final landfall in North Carolina.
Compared to recent seasons, the 2006 Atlantic Hurricane Season has been a tranquil one. Not only relative to the historic and record breaking season of 2005, but also to the majority of eleven seasons during this current active cycle that began in 1995. While the first two months of the season were average with a named storm in both June and July, the third month, August was running below normal. What is normally known as the beginning of the Cape Verde or peak season for Atlantic Hurricanes, August had only two named storms including one that briefly became a hurricane. Lasting at minimal hurricane intensity for a period of only twelve hours, Ernesto was the first named storm in 2006 to become a hurricane.
Ernesto would quickly break down into a tropical storm as its circulation encountered the rugged terrain on both the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. Despite clinging to minimal tropical storm strength, Ernesto lost a great deal of punch after departing from the Northeastern coast of Cuba into the Florida Straits. The fifth named storm of 2006 would never regain that same swagger again. Ernesto's life-span did have its share of landfalls though.
After coming ashore in Cuba, the storm made three more separate landfalls along the United States coastline. First, Ernesto came ashore in the Upper Florida Keys near Islamorada. Several hours later, it struck again in Miami-Dade County in South Florida. Finally, after re-entering the Atlantic near Cape Canaveral, Ernesto strengthened to near hurricane intensity again, and hit land for the last time near Long Beach on the southern shores of North Carolina.
So while the 2006 season has not been that active, the year still has managed to get more than its fare share of landfalls thanks to this storm. Ernesto began as a disturbance with a lot of promise. Originating in the Southern Windward Islands as a tropical wave, Ernesto grew and began to draw attention from the media as Tropical Storm Debby faded into oblivion over the open waters of the Central Atlantic.
Over the next twenty-four to thirty-six hours, the disturbance became better organized, and a closed circulation began to take shape as Hurricane Hunter aircraft noticed southwesterly winds coming out of Grenada. Later in the afternoon on August 25, 2006, the area of disturbed weather became the fifth depression of the season. Shortly after that, Ernesto emerged. Over the next several days, Ernesto steadily increased in strength as it headed northwestward toward the Mona Passage region between Cuba and Hispaniola.
On Sunday, August 27th, 2006, the fifth named storm of 2006 became the season's first hurricane. From 5:00 AM to 5:00 PM EDT on the 27th, Ernesto maintained minimal hurricane status with 75 mph winds. Its central pressure would bottom out at 990 mb, or 29.23 inches of Hg (Mercury). During this time though, its circulation began to get cut off by the high mountains situated in both Cuba and Hispaniola. These two islands have mountain chains that have heights ranging between seven thousand and ten thousand feet above sea level.
Downgraded to tropical storm strength, Ernesto would never attain hurricane intensity again as it eventually made landfall in Cuba, moved along that country's northern coast, and moved out over water again in the Florida Straits. It then made three more stops in its journey along the United States East Coast as it left nine people dead and thousands without power. Ironically, Ernesto would cause more damage after moving well inland as it merged with a low pressure system, and transitioned to an extratropical storm.
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Although Ernesto was modest with respect to most recent hurricanes in the Atlantic, there were still some very interesting eccentricities about this storm. While moving through Florida, Ernesto's circulation held up quite well despite being downgraded to a depression. Following its final landfall in North Carolina, the storm managed to have higher gusts further north in places such as Maryland, which had peak winds as high as 90 mph. Nearby in Cape May, New Jersey along the Delaware Bay, wind gusts were recorded over hurricane force.
Nevertheless, the brunt of the storm was yet to arrive in both these areas. Prior to Ernesto's trip up the Atlantic coast, another area of low pressure had brought a good deal of rain to the Northeast. For instance, in South Plainfield, New Jersey, approximately 72 percent of August's rainfall to date had fallen over the better part of four days. The rainfall left the ground saturated and soggy, which brought about the possibility of flooding and tree damage since the roots of older trees were weakened by the recent deluge.
As Ernesto moved inland over North Carolina, it began to lose its tropical characteristics and morph into just a remnant low. However, the combination of cyclonic lifting from a nearby front and some orographic lifting thanks in part to the foothills of the Appalachians produced torrential rains across much of the Tar Heel state. Those rains crept further north into the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as Ernesto's remnants took a track through Virginia, stalled briefly, and then moved through Western Maryland and Central Pennsylvania before dissipating over Western New York.
Rain began falling in South Jersey during the mid-morning hours of Friday, September 1st, 2006. By late afternoon and early evening, rain began to fall in earnest over Central New Jersey. Around 9:00 PM EDT that night, rains had become steady while a noticeable breeze developed. Many had expected the storm's full effects to be impacting the area, but since the remnant low had stalled in Virginia, the heavy rain and gusty winds were delayed by about 12 to 18 hours.
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On Saturday, September 2nd, the remnants began to move forward again, and the combination of the low pressure from the dying system and high pressure lurking over New England and Eastern Canada was producing a strong pressure gradient, or a significant difference in pressure. Consequently, winds began to pick up and leaves and tree branches started flying. Conditions outside were more like that of a nor'easter with the wind, rain, and cooler temperatures making things kind of raw for early September.
By mid-afternoon, the storm gave the weather folks their vindication with the pressure gradient coming into play. Tree limbs and power lines were downed, older trees were uprooted, and rain continued falling. At South Plainfield, a total of 1.57 inches of rain fell while winds gusted to nearly 40 mph. Places in Bergen County in New Jersey and Staten Island in New York received the brunt of Ernesto's remnants while coastal communities in Monmouth County dealt with beach erosion and minor tidal flooding.
When it was all said and done, the storm packed quite a surprising punch. Local New Jersey residents that had been on vacation during the week in Florida when Ernesto first came ashore, were surprised to see so much more damage further north. Originally, many of the forecast models predicted that Ernesto would traverse the waters of the Caribbean, cross Cuba, and enter the Gulf. Those initial projections had many forsaken residents of the Gulf Coast on edge.
Thankfully, a trough moved eastward from the Great Plains, and steered the storm on its ultimate course. Another interesting aspect of this storm was the fact that a 384 hour forecast of the GFS model from August 17th, 2006, indicated that a major hurricane would be in the vicinity of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic by Labor Day Weekend. Looking at the way things finally turned out, that original long range forecast performed quite remarkably although the storm didn't reach anywhere near major hurricane intensity. Don't say that to residents of Bergen or Monmouth County in New Jersey and Staten Island in New York though.
See the full collection of video footage of Ernesto at both Somerset and South Plainfield, New Jersey.
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