Officials mulling storm-surge warnings

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Published: April 1,2010

Tags: hurricanes, natural disasters

ORLANDO, Fla. — The National Hurricane Center is considering adding a storm-surge warning to its list of watches and warnings issued during hurricane season.

Center officials floated the idea of a storm-surge warning Wednesday to a crowd of emergency managers, first responders and meteorologists attending the 2010 National Hurricane Conference in Orlando.

No decision will be made for another two or three years.

Oftentimes there are places that aren’t in the cone of a hurricane warning but are vulnerable to storm surges. Those areas would benefit from a storm-surge warning, said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

“In a storm like Hurricane Ike, surges are far more dangerous than wind in a particular location,” Read said. “We’re thinking we need to have that warning.”

In 2008, Hurricane Ike not only damaged 75 percent of the houses in Galveston, Texas, but also submerged farmland and ranches in saltwater, scoured away beaches and ruined thousands of acres of vegetation.

If it is adopted, a storm-surge warning won’t be ready for another two or three years because of the technical hurdles caused by differences along coastlines and the need to incorporate surge models with pre-existing tide levels and rainfall runoff, he said.

The debate over issuing a surge warning comes as the hurricane center is making changes to its storm warnings this hurricane season, which begins June 1. Starting in mid-May, the center will begin issuing storm watches and warnings about half a day sooner in the biggest change to its warning system in decades.

When a storm is approaching land, forecasters will now send watches advising that tropical storm conditions could be expected there in 48 hours, instead of 36 hours. Warnings of tropical storm or hurricane conditions will be issued 36 hours ahead, not 24 hours.

The hurricane center will be able to issue seven-day forecasts by mid-decade.

But this hurricane season, the National Hurricane Center’s biggest concern is Haiti, where more than 1 million people were left homeless by a devastating earthquake in January. The hurricane center will hold more briefings than usual if a hurricane appears to be headed to Haiti to give residents more information to prepare, Read said.

“Most people know we’ve got an impossible situation there,” Read said. “God forbid a major hurricane went across Haiti while we have this many people in a distressed state during the peak of the hurricane season.”

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