What makes Hurricane Florence so dangerous to South Florida?


Waves traveling like channels of corduroy will batter South Florida’s coastline beginning late Wednesday as Hurricane Florence’s brutal energy reaches across hundreds of miles of ocean.

The National Weather Service is warning of dangerous marine conditions from the Treasure Coast to the Keys with near-shore swells as high as 7 feet in northern Palm Beach County where some beach flags were already flying yellow Tuesday.

On Palm Beach, at least one lifeguard stand was lifted onto South Ocean Boulevard as a precaution against losing it to Florence-stirred surf. Other towers were pushed as far as possible away from the high tide line.

“There’s a Cat 4 sitting out there and it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Craig Pollock, supervisor of lifeguards for the Town of Palm Beach. “It will be some very strong surf.”

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And all the more dangerous because of its long-period duration and forecast for partly to mostly sunny skies — weather that might draw more people to the shore for a beach day not realizing that muscle-bound waves and rip currents await.

With 12 to 13 seconds between swells, people could venture unwittingly into the water thinking it’s calm.

“They walk out and look and don’t see any waves and think it’s OK. Then a big set will come through,” said Steve Kaes, training officer for Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue South District.

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Kaes also cautions against standing close to the water’s edge.

“Shore break can knock people down onto the ground, break bones, dislocate joints, it’s very dangerous,” he said.

Florence, a powerful Category 4 hurricane with 130 mph winds as of Tuesday afternoon, was churning about 370 miles south-southwest of Bermuda on a west-northwest path toward the Carolinas. It was forecast to strengthen to a high-end Cat 4 with 150 mph winds into Thursday before a shot of wind shear weakens it to a Category 3 near landfall.

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The official forecast from the National Hurricane Center has it hitting South Carolina or North Carolina late Thursday into Friday morning.

For Florida, that means high swells will work their way down from the northern reaches of the state with Jacksonville issuing a high risk of rip currents for North Florida and South Georgia beaches on Tuesday.

A high risk of rip currents was also issued for Daytona Beach through Stuart.

“These long-period swells can really scour the beaches because there’s more volume of water associated with each wave coming in,” said Matt Volkmer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Melbourne. “There is a lot of energy.”

Pollock said Palm Beach may fly double red no swimming flags if the surf gets too rough, but Kaes said he avoids doing that because he fears people will just go swim somewhere else away from a lifeguard.

“At least if we let them go in, we can see them,” he said.

The Florence swell is forecast to be short-lived, dying once the storm makes landfall.

For Palm Beach County, Florence-generated waves should linger into Saturday. The National Weather Service in Miami said major beach erosion is possible in northern Palm Beach County.

“We’re not going to get any direct impacts from Florence,” said Larry Kelly, a meteorologist in the Miami office of the NWS. “But we’ll still feel it on our Atlantic beaches.”

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