Some thoughts from the National Hurricane Conference

The 2012 National Hurricane Conference is in the bag. While I do not know how many people attended, I am sure it was far lower a number than I have seen in years past. The stalled economy, budget cuts and $4.00/gallon gas no doubt have had an impact on this important national forum.

None the less, I was in attendance for two of the four days and learned a lot. I will share much more about that in the weeks to come but for now, a couple of quick thoughts.

One of the most interesting subjects was that of storm surge and how to educate the public about what to really expect. As someone who has seen, recorded and studied numerous storm surge events dating back to the late 1990s, I perhaps took for granted that when people hear of a potential 10 to 15 foot storm surge that they would automatically, without question, take the necessary action to save lives and mitigate property damage. Remember that storm surge has the greatest potential for loss of life, above all of the other tropical cyclone hazards. Yet, apparently  a lot of people do not understand their vulnerability to surge much less what a surge forecast actually means.

If we look at Katrina as an example, that hurricane reached a chilling 175 mph, category five status and literally scared the you-know-what out of a lot of people along the Gulf Coast. However, there was still a segment of the population who, despite the warnings of more than 20 feet of storm surge approaching, chose to remain in their homes because of what they perceived was a lesser threat. Why? Camille. They survived Camille in 1969 or their home did not flood in that hurricane- which was a cat-5 at landfall according to history. Katrina was NOT forecast to be a cat-5 at landfall and in fact weakened to a 3 before crossing the coast. This really does not matter as the damage was already done. Camille killed people in 1969 and in 2005 because those people thought they knew what to expect from Katrina based on their experience with Camille. They did not take Katrina at face value and look at it as an extraordinary situation with its own set of devastating effects.

Let’s fast forward to 2008, a mere three years after Katrina. Here we had Ike heading for the Texas coast and the storm surge forecast from the NHC clearly stated that coastal inundation in excess of 20 feet was possible with the arrival of Ike. The Hurricane Local Statement out of NWS Houston/Galveston made mention of “certain death” for those who ignored the evacuation orders and who were in the inundation areas. As good as the evacuations were, people remained behind on Bolivar Peninsula, some died and others had to be rescued from what had to be a terrifying ordeal. What went wrong with the thought process in those instances? Was it the label of “category two” for Ike that gave people a false sense of “it won’t be too bad, it’s only a two”? Did these people ignore the 20+ foot storm surge forecast or think it was an error? Let me be positive here and point out that most people evacuated and the county emergency management plans worked- many, many lives were absolutely saved due to those plans. Still, we want 100% participation in such plans, don’t we? We know hurricanes are coming for days in advance in most cases. Outside of extremely rare and freak accidents, there’s no excuse for loss of life anymore in my opinion. The NHC forecasters are the best in the world at what they do. They really are. The products are fairly easy to understand and interpret, I think. So where is the gap? How do local, state and federal officials convey the right message to the public as to what to do and when to do it? Is there a single answer to this generations-old problem?

Let’s look at Irene just last year. I think a good deal of the public believes the forecast was overblown and Irene did not live up to “expectations”. Really? Who set those expectations? Was it because Irene was once a “major” hurricane and since it weakened to a less intense category one, it meant there was less danger? Have you seen the video out of eastern North Carolina of the surge from Pamlico and surrounding sounds? As the kids say today, “OMG!” it was incredible. I’ll have to try and find it on YouTube and post a link. It reminded me of Lake Ponchartrain during Katrina. We were streaming our own live coverage of storm surge overtaking Hwy 64 coming from Roanoke Island near Nags Head. The water rose faster than during Ike, something that I will never forget. All of this was sound side flooding too, not from the ocean. The result was a complete shut down of a good portion of the Outer Banks from Oregon Inlet south to Hatteras. Yet, not one death from surge was noted in North Carolina. A truly remarkable stat considering how high the water levels reached in Hyde, Beaufort, Pamlico, Carteret, Craven and Dare counties.

In upstate New York and of course Vermont, the inland flooding from Irene’s 5 to 10 inches of rain was simply devastating. NHC director Bill Read pointed out that the mountains of that region helped to funnel the torrents of water in to raging flash floods that will be remembered for years.

Wind damage was widespread but not particularly intense. Think of it as a severe thunderstorm for four hours or more. This is how director Read put it at the conference. Trees were downed, power was out for more than a week in many locations of New England. It was a real mess. So why all the fuss about Irene not living up to the hype? Was it because it did not drown Manhattan as some thought it might? Who thought that and why? The NHC certainly never suggested a doomsday event for NYC from Irene. Is the media to blame? The Internet? All of the above? Irene was bad enough as a large tropical cyclone yet it did not measure up to the likes of Katrina or Hugo. Why is anyone complaining? The forecasts were really good when the time came to make decisions. People had more than a day to put their hurricane plans in to motion. If they did not, perhaps they need to revisit their own process for determining when to put those plans in to action.

If someone told you with 100% certainty that you would be in an automobile accident in two days but they were not sure if it would be a head-on collision with a semi at 60 mph or a rear-ender by a Honda sedan at 40 mph, what would you do? What if at 24 hours before the accident, which again is 100% for sure going to happen, you were told that yes, it would in fact “just” be a rear end event by the Honda going 40 mph. Would you not wear your seat belt? Perhaps you would let your kids roam around the vehicle with no restraints. After all, the threat of a head-on collision with a huge truck is now gone, but you’re still going to be in an accident, possibly a serious one. Would you take the threat any less serious? So why then do people think of hurricanes and their subsequent response by their categories? How did this conditioning come in to such common practice? All hurricanes are deadly. Period. They all have the same four hazards. Each of those hazards can be lethal and/or destroy property. So why would anyone relax and not continue with their action plans when told that hurricane X weakened from a cat-3 to a cat-1? Irene did just that and yet for some people anywhere from North Carolina to Vermont, it was the worst hurricane ever. For others, it was a non-event.

That is the issue. We do not know for whom the bell tolls, so to speak. There will never be a forecast that says your home will suffer no damage from this hurricane, don’t worry about it, don’t plan for it, don’t evacuate. Every hurricane has the potential to affect you in a severe way if you live in its path. For most people, that will never happen, ever. For those who are not that fortunate, you better believe that you will want to prepare as best you can. In the end, it’s up to you. The tools are out there, produced by the best talent on the planet. Put those tools to use and know what you’re dealing with. We cannot rely on the government to tell us our every move, it’s our responsibility to know the hazards and to formulate a plan, any plan, to deal with those hazards. Anything short of that is just asking for trouble.

I’ll have more from this year’s conference, including several interesting interviews with James Franklin, Dr. Chris Landsea, Bill Read and from the private sector, Allen Morse of Phillips and Jordan on debris removal.

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