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Hurricane Matthew on October 3, 2016. Image credit: NOAA/NASA

Hurricane Matthew Hits Haiti, May Head North

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Hurricane Matthew on October 3, 2016. Image credit: NOAA/NASA

Hurricane Matthew is a monstrous storm unlike anything we’ve seen in the Atlantic Ocean in a long time. This morning, October 4, the Category 4 hurricane made landfall in Haiti, unleashing the brunt of its fury on the island nation—and it may soon do the same to Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas. After that, the hurricane could either head out to sea or hit the U.S. East Coast head on. The hurricane is moving into a complicated weather pattern that the models are having a hard time figuring out, so we won’t know for a few more days what—if any—impacts Hurricane Matthew will have on the United States.

Data from the National Hurricane Center indicate that the storm currently has maximum sustained winds of 145 mph, ranking it as a Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. The storm briefly reached Category 5 intensity this past weekend, making it the strongest storm we’ve seen in the Atlantic Ocean since Hurricane Felix in 2007 and one of a handful of storms in this part of the world to ever reach the top of the wind scale. It's also the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in Haiti in 52 years.

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast for Hurricane Matthew at 11:00 AM Eastern on October 3, 2016. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau


Hurricane Matthew’s worst winds are focused in a small part of the eyewall, but it still has a large shield of strong winds and extremely heavy rain that measures several hundred miles across. Forecasters expect deadly flash flooding and mudslides across Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas as Matthew passes through the area. Some parts of Haiti could see more than 2 feet of rain, leading to potentially devastating consequences. Already there are reports of deaths. The storm surge, or the flood of seawater pushed inland by the strong winds, could reach or exceed the height of a one-story house on the southern coasts of Haiti, Cuba, and some islands in the Bahamas.

The storm’s future is still an open question once it leaves the Caribbean. Some models steer the hurricane out to sea, while others bring it into the East Coast of the United States. The models are having a tough time determining how Matthew will interact with a ridge of high pressure over the Atlantic, which acts like a guard rail that keeps the storm from turning harmlessly out to sea. There’s also a trough of low pressure approaching the East Coast from the west that could catch the hurricane and drag it north, but the models disagree about that as well. The intricate play between Matthew and its environment will determine how much of a headache the storm will cause the United States in the next seven days. Data from extra weather balloon launches and persistent Hurricane Hunter missions into the storm will hopefully give weather models some extra information to work with so they can get a better handle on what will happen this week.

Everyone along the U.S. coast from Florida to Maine should keep an eye on the National Hurricane Center’s forecasts as Matthew draws closer to land. Any potential impacts to the U.S. will occur later this week or this weekend, so there are still a few days to make sure you’re prepared for a storm and its lasting effects in the event that it heads toward the coast. Either way, Matthew will generate powerful waves and rip currents at beaches up and down the eastern seaboard. Use extreme caution if you’re visiting the beach over the next week, and stay out of the water if conditions are too rough.

An infrared satellite view of Hurricane Matthew at peak strength on September 30, 2016. Image credit: NOAA/NASA


Impacts aside, this hurricane is fascinating from a scientific perspective. Matthew grew from a small tropical storm into a powerful, scale-topping Category 5 hurricane with alarming speed. It took just 36 hours—between 11:00 a.m. EDT on September 29 to 11:00 p.m. EDT on September 30—for the storm’s winds to jump from 70 mph to 160 mph.

What’s even worse is that no human forecast or weather model expected Hurricane Matthew to turn into the monster it became. This hurricane is a prime example of how meteorology is still an inexact science. Matthew blew up over extremely warm waters, but it faced moderate wind shear that was expected to disrupt thunderstorms around the eye and keep it from strengthening as fast as it did.

Meteorologists have made great strides in improving hurricane track forecasts over the past couple of decades. They’re able to predict the location of most storms to within about 250 miles five days in advance—still a big margin of error, but much better than it was just a few years ago. While their track forecasts have improved, meteorologists still struggle with intensity forecasts, especially when rapid intensification occurs like we saw this weekend. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how hurricanes strengthen, and Matthew is proof of that struggle.

Hurricane Matthew is also odd because it didn’t look like a traditional Category 5 hurricane at its peak strength. The storm had an intense inner core with a weird, larger “blob” of convection to its east. The odd appendage was caused by easterly trade winds converging with Matthew’s winds circulating from the southwest. We normally don’t see that in the Caribbean because storms—especially strong ones—tend to keep moving west or northwest instead of stalling out and meandering for a few days.

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Thanks to a Wet Winter, New Zealand Faces a Potential Potato Chip Shortage
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New Zealand has plenty of unique and tasty snacks, but kiwis also love potato chips. The universal comfort food is in danger Down Under, however, as an unusually wet winter has devastated the island country’s tuber crops, according to BBC News.

Twenty percent of New Zealand’s annual potato crop was wiped out from a series of major storms and floods that ravaged the nation’s North and South Islands, The Guardian reports. In some regions, up to 30 percent of potato crops were affected, with the varieties used to make chips bearing the brunt of the damage.

Potato prices spiked as farmers struggled, but the crisis—now dubbed “chipocalypse” by media outlets—didn't really make the mainstream news until supermarket chain Pak’nSave posted announcements in potato chip aisles that warned customers of a salty snack shortage until the New Year.

Pak’nSave has since rescinded this explanation, claiming instead that they made an ordering error. However, other supermarket chains say they’re working directly with potato chip suppliers to avoid any potential shortfalls, and are aware that supplies might be limited for the foreseeable future.

New Zealand’s potato farming crisis extends far beyond the snack bars at rugby matches and vending machines. Last year’s potato crops either rotted or remained un-harvested, and the ground is still too wet to plant new ones. This hurts New Zealand’s economy: The nation is the world’s ninth-largest exporter of potatoes.

Plus, potatoes “are a food staple, and this is becoming a food security issue as the effects of climate change take their toll on our potato crop,” says Chris Claridge, the chief executive of industry group Potatoes New Zealand, according to The Guardian.

In the meantime, New Zealanders are preparing to hunker down for a few long months of potential potato peril—and according to some social media users, kale chips are not a suitable alternative. “Chipocalypse” indeed.

[h/t BBC News]

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Bess Lovejoy
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.


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