GULF OF MEXICO — Last year’s hurricane season drove home some big lessons, the nation’s chief hurricane forecaster said Tuesday: Storm surge and flooding are dangerous and difficult to predict, and sometimes it’s even harder to communicate that sense of urgency to the public.
It wasn’t just high winds that posed a threat and caused damage, said National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb, who joined Florida’s emergency managers in Fort Lauderdale at the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference.
“2012 was all about water, water, water. Debby, Isaac, Sandy,” Knabb said. “It was storm surge from the ocean, it was inland flooding, it was river flooding.”
The hurricane center has been working for several years to improve its storm surge forecasts and public warnings about potential flooding risks far from the coastline. The last season has added a sense of urgency to get those upgrades ready by the 2015 season, Knabb said.
Superstorm Sandy brought high winds, extreme tides, drenching rains, flooding and even heavy snow and when it slammed into New Jersey in October, leaving millions without power, wiping out entire neighborhoods and causing the most storm-related deaths in the Northeast since Hurricane Agnes in 1972. It’s the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Hurricane Isaac swamped the U.S. Gulf Coast in August, even delaying the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Much of the damage left by Tropical Storm Debby in June came from river flooding after heavy rains soaked northern and central Florida.
The hurricane center said it would change the way it warns people about tropical storms that become something else, after some critics suggested that Northeast residents underestimated Sandy’s danger because forecasters stopped issuing hurricane warnings when the storm merged with two cold-weather systems and lost its tropical characteristics.
Now the hurricane center will continue to put out warnings and advisories if a storm threatens people and land, even if it’s no longer called a hurricane or tropical storm.
This season, hurricane center forecasters also hope to test new graphics showing where storm surge might be a problem during a particular storm. Separate storm surge watches and warnings, similar to current storm watches and warnings, will roll out in 2015.
Forecasters have significantly improved their ability to predict a storm’s path. It’s still difficult to know a day or two in advance how big that storm could be or whether it will rapidly intensify. Predicting its storm surge poses additional challenges.
“It’s very difficult to forecast exactly where the storm surge is going to be the greatest, how far inland it’s going to go and how deep the water is going to get above ground,” Knabb said.
Communicating the danger also remains challenging, because many people don’t know whether they live in storm surge evacuation zones, and then some residents don’t see the risk until it’s almost too late, Knabb said.
“It is human nature to not want to believe that something that has a small chance of happening that could be really bad is actually going to happen,” he said.
That’s why Knabb and other emergency managers urge residents to check insurance policies, make evacuation plans and buy emergency supplies well before there’s any hurricane threat.
The six-month Atlantic storm season begins June 1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center is expected to release its hurricane season outlook later this month.
The 2012 hurricane season was the seventh consecutive year without the U.S. landfall of a major hurricane: Category 3 or higher, with winds of 111 mph or higher.
The season tied as being the third most-active season since 1851 with 19 named storms.