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Matthew Moves Through the Bahamas and Heads for Florida on Thursday

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Hurricane Matthew is slowly moving northwest through the Bahamas this Wednesday afternoon, October 5, as it gains back the strength it lost earlier this week when it battered Cuba and Haiti with devastating flooding and intense winds. The hurricane is on track to reach Florida on Thursday as the worst storm the state has seen in more than a decade, potentially exposing densely populated cities to extreme winds, a dangerous storm surge, and flooding rains.

The latest update from the National Hurricane Center shows that Matthew was still a major hurricane early this morning with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph, making it a Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. The hurricane weakened from its long-held Category 4 intensity after interacting with rough terrain in eastern Cuba, but a favorable environment ahead of the storm—light winds, warm water, and ample moisture—will likely allow it to restrengthen into a Category 4 as it approaches Florida.

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast for Hurricane Matthew as of 11:00 AM October 5, 2016. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

The Bahamas will take a serious hit from this major hurricane. The country’s capital of Nassau is forecast to be in the worst part of the eyewall on Thursday morning, potentially causing major damage and cutting off the country’s population center from the outside world for a time after the storm. Significant flooding will also pose a serious threat to life and property across the country’s many tiny islands.

Florida is covered with watches and warnings in anticipation of Matthew’s arrival on Thursday and Friday. A hurricane warning is in effect from Miami’s northern suburbs up the coast to Daytona Beach. Even though most hurricane forecast maps show these alerts along the immediate coastline, hurricane watches and warnings also extend inland—this hurricane warning also includes Orlando, its suburbs, and the Walt Disney World Resort. Tropical storm warnings cover southern Florida and inland parts of the state between Tampa and Orlando.

Great uncertainty exists in the forecast right now beyond Friday. The weather models are still having a hard time trying to figure out how Hurricane Matthew will interact with a ridge of high pressure parked over the western Atlantic right now. The hurricane will travel around the outer edge of the ridge as if it were a monorail. How far to the east or west the ridge extends later this week and this weekend will determine how close Matthew will come to land, as well as what it will do this weekend and early next week. Even though the Carolinas seem to be in a better position today than previous forecasts, this could change as models get a better handle on the situation.

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast probability for tropical storm–force winds (39–74 mph) as Hurricane Matthew approaches the United States. Warmer colors indicate higher odds for strong winds. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

Strong winds and heavy rain from Hurricane Matthew extend almost 200 miles from its eye, so even if the storm doesn’t officially make landfall, the coast will still feel major impacts. Flooding rains are likely along the coast from Florida to South Carolina, possibly farther north if Matthew travels up the coast more than currently expected. Wind damage is likely, which will result in widespread power outages across the affected areas. Depending on the scale of the damage, power outages could last for several days and may stretch weeks in the hardest-hit areas.

A storm surge of 3–5 feet is possible along the coast where the hurricane warning is in effect. A storm surge, which is historically the deadliest part of a hurricane, is the flooding that results from high winds pushing seawater inland. The depth of a storm surge can be extremely localized—flooding from one spot to the next depends on the shape of the coastline, the depth of the water near shore, how strong the winds blow, and how long the strong winds last.

Hurricane Matthew has a history of destruction that should give hesitant coastal residents all the more reason to prepare for this storm’s arrival. The Weather Channel reports that Haiti and Cuba suffered “catastrophic" damage when Matthew passed through the Greater Antilles earlier this week. The most heavily damaged parts of Haiti are cut off from the outside world right now, limiting our knowledge of the potential destruction and casualties there, but photos and videos coming from the country show widespread damage from wind and flooding.

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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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The Northern Lights Won’t Be This Bright Again Until 2025
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If you’ve ever camped out to see the northern lights, you know they can be elusive. They’re only visible on dark, clear nights up north when a solar flare or solar wind shoots particles toward Earth. Seeing the phenomenon live takes a bit of luck, but if spectators wish to boost their chances, now's the time. As Thrillist reports, the aurora borealis is at its peak—and won’t be this bright again until 2025.

The colorful lights that seem to bend in the sky over the Arctic Circle are the product of electrons from the Sun colliding with gases in the planet’s atmosphere. The lights are controlled by the Sun, and because solar activity goes through 11-year cycles, so does the aurora borealis.

The Sun is currently at the end of the maximum stage of its cycle. The increased solar activity makes for northern lights that are more frequent and visible farther south. As the Sun starts to move into its minimum phase of activity, the light show will be harder to see from parts of the world to the south of northern Russia, northern Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia. The next part of the cycle will last about eight years, with solar activity starting to heat up again around 2025.

On rare occasions, the northern lights can be seen from some of the lower 48 states, like Maine, Michigan, and Washington. But to make sure you catch them in peak season, U.S. residents may have to travel north. Here are a few inexpensive trips you can take to get an eyeful of the spectacle.

[h/t Thrillist]


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