‘This storm did not just ap­pear out of the blue’

Soundings - - Focus - By Jim Flan­nery

One racer was miss­ing and the bod­ies of five oth­ers had been re­cov­ered as Alabama au­thor­i­ties and the Coast Guard be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing the deaths of six sailors af­ter nearhur­ri­cane-force winds pum­meled the Dauphin Is­land Race on Mo­bile Bay.

An or­ga­nized line of se­vere thun­der­storms march­ing east along the Gulf Coast from Texas and Louisiana bore down on the bay with 60-mph winds about 3 p.m. on Satur­day, April 25, as some of the 112 sail­boats were fin­ish­ing the 18-mile course from Mo­bile to Dauphin Is­land and oth­ers were re­turn­ing home. The race, sched­uled to start at 9:30 a.m., was post­poned an hour due to a mis­un­der­stand­ing be­tween race of­fi­cials at host Fairhope Yacht Club and their Web ad­min­is­tra­tor, who in a gar­bled phone con­ver­sa­tion thought he had been told to post a no­tice that the race had been “scratched” — can­celed — when in fact he had been told to post the scratch sheet on the club web­site, an uniden­ti­fied club of­fi­cial told

The can­cel­la­tion no­tice was posted, then re­tracted. The first of the two starts was resched­uled for 10: 30 but didn’t oc­cur un­til 11 o’clock be­cause of a restart, which set the fleet up for a col­li­sion with the midafter­noon storm. At least eight boats sank or were dis­abled. The Coast Guard says mul­ti­ple agen­cies and good Sa­mar­i­tans res­cued at least 40 peo­ple from the wa­ter. The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice re­ported a 73- mph gust at 3: 18 p.m. at the Mo­bile Bay light­house, and rac­ers say waves — whipped into walls of wa­ter in the shal­low bay — quickly built to 8 to 10 feet, swamp­ing and cap­siz­ing boats and leav­ing sailors in the churn­ing wa­ters.

Res­cue boats, he­li­copters and air­craft from the Coast Guard, Alabama Marine Pa­trol, and the Mo­bile and Baldwin County sher­iff’s de­part­ments searched 9,500 square miles of Mo­bile Bay and 164 miles of shore­line for sur­vivors over four days, then down­shifted to a search-and-re­cov­ery op­er­a­tion for the body of one sailor who was still un­ac­counted for.

As part of their joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the Coast Guard and the Alabama Law En­force­ment Agency’s Marine Pa­trol asked the ap­prox­i­mately 476 race par­tic­i­pants to fill out a sur­vey that in­cluded this ques­tion: “Did you or any­one on your ves­sel hear weather alerts from any source be­fore weather con­di­tions de­te­ri­o­rated?” The ques­tion sug­gested an­other one that per­plexed many ob­servers in the days af­ter the tragedy: Why had so many skip­pers been sur­prised by this storm?

“All the right watches and warn­ings were posted,” says WBMA-TV Birm­ing­ham’s chief me­te­o­rol­o­gist, James Spann, the dean of Alabama weather­men and a regular on

a na­tional weekly ca­ble TV and pod­cast pro­gram. “I just don’t un­der­stand what failed. Why wouldn’t they be aware of the sit­u­a­tion? The storm did not just ap­pear out of the blue. Not this one.”

Some rac­ers said post-race that they knew there was a pos­si­bil­ity of thun­der­storms, but thun­der­storms are of­ten pos­si­ble along the Gulf Coast in the spring and sum­mer. How­ever, they weren’t ex­pect­ing — many had never seen — any­thing this vi­cious.

Spann says that shouldn’t have been a sur­prise, ei­ther. Weather radar showed storms spread­ing across coastal Louisiana into Mis­sis-

Al.com. The storm was fore­casted, yet it caught many sailors by sur­prise. Brains, Con­di­tions on Mo­bile Bay quickly de­te­ri­o­rated when the line of storms moved through. Weather

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