By Cheryl Blackerby
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration set a target of 2015 to start giving storm surge watches and warnings along with hurricane tracks.
Forecasts by the National Weather Service now emphasize storm track, wind intensity, rainfall and, to a lesser extent, storm surge. But surges following hurricanes have caused loss of life and tremendous material damage. Surge warnings would help people make better decisions to safeguard themselves and their property.
Multiple NOAA studies have shown significant confusion on the part of the public regarding their storm surge risk, and underlined the need for improved communication of the potential danger.
Hurricane Sandy illustrated the need for surge warnings and prompted the National Hurricane Center to call on its parent agency, NOAA, “to implement explicit storm surge watches and warnings.”
A downgraded Hurricane Sandy did largely what the Weather Service predicted, but sent a catastrophic storm surge into the New Jersey and New York coastlines. And it was the surge hazard that caused numerous fatalities and most of the damage with the storm, as well as the extensive evacuations necessary to prevent an even larger loss of life.
The hurricane skirted the east coast of Florida, but caused millions of dollars in beach and property damage from waves and storm surge.
Tropical cyclones have killed more than 25,000 people in the continental United States, with a majority of those deaths attributable to storm surge, according to NOAA statistics. Except for the 1940s, storm surge claimed hundreds or even thousands of lives in at least one storm in each decade from the 1870s through the 1960s.
More than a thousand lives were lost in the decade just concluded, with most of these attributable to Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge.
The proposal to start new NWS watches and warnings for the storm surge hazard has been in the works for several years.
With the implementation of a storm surge warning, the NWS will warn explicitly “for the phenomenon that presents the greatest weather-related threat for a massive loss of life in a single day,” according to a NOAA report.
Another post-Sandy NOAA proposal would give the National Hurricane Center the option to continue issuing formal advisories on post-tropical cyclones as long as those systems pose a significant threat to life and property. It would give the NWS the option to keep hurricane and tropical storm watches and warnings in place for those systems.
Under present protocol, the National Hurricane Center transfers forecast responsibility to local National Weather Service offices after a hurricane warning is cancelled. NHC advisories cease, perhaps giving a false sense of security. The NOAA report said this could cause “widespread confusion, potentially impeding preparations and evacuations.” Ú
By Cheryl Blackerby