UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It had been five days since Hurricane Maria made landfall with Puerto Rico, and Kelly Nunez Ocasio still hadn’t heard from her father.
Ocasio grew up on the island and weathered powerful storms before. Now a graduate student at Penn State studying how hurricanes form, all she could do was wait.
“When you know they are going to be hit by a Category 4 Hurricane, it’s already nerve-wracking,” she said. “But not to be able to know about your family for days, that’s a feeling I would never want anyone to have.”
Ocasio soon learned her family was safe. Others weren’t as lucky. The storm killed more than 100 and left thousands without power and water for months. On Puerto Rico, where the damage was particularly severe, an estimated 150,000 were still without electricity in March.
Hurricane Maria was one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, and like many of the most intense tropical cyclones, its path traced all the way back to the African coast.
Ocasio studies weather patterns called African Easterly Waves (AEWs) that spawn many of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes.
These aren’t ocean waves like you’d see at the beach, but rather low-pressure systems in the atmosphere that form over Africa and move west across the coast, interacting with intensely raining weather systems. As the AEW with embedded rain systems continues to move out across the Atlantic Ocean, it may become a hurricane.
“People may think this research is so far away from the actual direct impact to society, but if we know more about what’s happening in the atmosphere as these AEWs develop and serve as seed for tropical cyclone development, we can better prepare our models to detect which ones will form into hurricanes,” Ocasio said. “The more observational data we have, the better we can prepare communities in the long term.”
Path to help leads to Penn State
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Ocasio witnessed the devastation hurricanes cause firsthand. She lived through Hurricane Georges, a powerful Category 4 storm that caused a huge amount of damage throughout the Caribbean and along the Gulf of Mexico in 1998.
“Ever since I was a kid, I experienced tropical storms and hurricanes,” she said. “I lived the impact of Hurricane Georges, and how it affected everyone for months. So I was intrigued about how I can help my community.”
That journey brought her to Penn State for a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in 2015, where she first studied AEWs with her adviser, Jenni Evans, professor of meteorology and director of the Institute for CyberScience at Penn State.
The experience encouraged Ocasio to apply for graduate school at Penn State in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, where she continues to study AEWs with Evans as her adviser.
“Kelly’s interest in these weather systems comes from her desire to help populations around the Atlantic to plan for, and to protect themselves from, the threat of hurricanes,” Evans said. “Kelly is also very focused on helping to keep safe the residents of her own island home of Puerto Rico. We share this desire to help communities at risk from hurricanes.”
AEWs form over tropical Africa, and concentrate intensely raining weather systems together. They contribute to the formation of tropical lows off the African coast. The most intense hurricanes in the Atlantic typically form from these tropical lows, Evans said.
Ocasio is developing a tracking algorithm, using satellite data and computer models to study rain events within the waves as they move across the ocean. She believes that the couplet of these rain events and an AEW may be what leads to tropical cyclones, something currently not well understood.
“What I’m trying to do is to understand how these storms relate to the topography of Africa and to other weather systems,” she said. “How do they become potential hazards? We want to be able to track them and understand them better to put this information in models and predictions to better prepare our society.”
Ocasio will present her research in April at the American Meteorological Society's Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology in Florida with funding from the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). Ocasio is an EESI Environmental Scholar, a program aimed at forging connections between departments (and between research groups) and increasing student diversity.
A long road ahead
Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 Hurricane with 155-mph winds when it struck the island. One of the most powerful and costly hurricanes on record, the storm caused significant destruction on the islands of Puerto Rico and Dominica.
Ocasio said it has been difficult for her family and others back on Puerto Rico in the weeks and months after Hurricane Maria. While her family was safe, the next weeks became about securing potable water and food, and trying to return to normalcy on an island with badly damaged infrastructure.
Thousands have left the island for the mainland United States, and some of those who remain are still without power, according to reports.
“Still today, many families struggle with not having power or potable water after many months of this catastrophe,” Ocasio said.