Hurricanes are very unique in many ways. We have come to know them by name, literally, and have also become quite fixated on giving them a ranking before they ever make it to land.
This is not the case with tornadoes. Nor earthquakes. Those phenomenon are not categorized until after they occur. So what is it about hurricanes that makes us want to give them a number, 1 to 5, that somehow signifies the level of danger – or so it would seem? Why is a category one hurricane less dangerous than a category two?
Let’s look at it from the tornado angle. You never, ever hear the legendary James Spann (Birmingham, Alabama TV meteorologist) say, “Oh, this is just an EF1 tornado, nothing to worry about”. Yes, I know hurricanes and tornadoes are vastly different weather events with different impacts but the point is, when we hear “tornado!” we run for cover, right? It’s just not the same for hurricanes and the realities of the public clearly not understanding hurricane impacts have become front and center as of late. Want proof? Look at Sandy and Isaac last year.
Sandy was a huge, powerful and very dangerous hurricane over the open waters of the Atlantic. Every major news outlet and even the small-time bloggers and social media storm watchers said for days on end that Sandy would be a damaging and deadly event for a good deal of the East Coast. Yet, lives were lost and tens of billions of dollars in property damage took place as a result of this “minimal hurricane”.
As for Isaac? Look at the flooding situation in LaPlace and Braithewait, Louisiana. Those areas were hit hard by category one hurricane Isaac – just barely a hurricane. Some people said they were surprised at the amount of storm surge flooding from Isaac. Why? It was noted for more than 48 hours ahead of landfall that a dangerous storm surge was coming in association with Isaac. This was not kept secret, it was right there in the main headline of each Public Advisory from the NHC:
“…RECONNAISSANCE AIRCRAFT INDICATES ISAAC GETTING STRONGER… SIGNIFICANT STORM SURGE THREAT EXPECTED FOR THE NORTHERN GULF COAST…”
Not sure how much more direct the headline can be other than saying, “Hey, Bob at 101 Main Street, yeah, 10 feet of water is heading your way by 11am on the 30th, better get ready and make plans for evacuation, okay?” Maybe one day we’ll have something that detailed, perhaps not as sarcastic hopefully, but you get the idea. Some people, however, still do not. They do not understand what they’re up against with a looming tropical storm or hurricane. That must change, if it doesn’t, people will die needlessly and more property will be lost that could have been saved.
What is the answer? I feel that there are two angles to this: education before hand and the correct information getting out when a threat is bearing down.
As far as education, yes there needs to be more of it, starting in the schools, especially in hurricane prone areas. Teach the kids and they’ll teach mom and dad. It worked for seat belt usage and (to some extent) for drug use, so why not a natural hazard like hurricanes? Get your local NWS involved. Have them come out and talk to the kids. Invite your local TV weather guy or gal. Do something to educate these kids – they deserve it and will soak it up. I know because I have personally spoken to literally thousands of them in my career.
The other angle is critical too. When a storm or hurricane is headed for land, it is imperative that the hazards affecting land be emphasized over wind speed and category. The wind speeds reported in a hurricane are almost NEVER seen over land. Unless we get a truly intense hurricane like Andrew or Charley, the wind is not the worst enemy, it’s the surge and threat from fresh water flooding. Even tropical storms need more respect. No one would ever in their right mind say, “Well Ted, you’re going to be in a wreck today but don’t worry, it’s only a head-on collision at 40 mph instead of 60, so you’ll be less injured and the car less damaged, so don’t worry too much about it”.
We need to think of tropical cyclones as dangerous, period. No more downplaying the lower categories or tropical storms. Focus on “what can hurt me, my family and cause damage to my property?” Do that, and we can make huge strides at reducing fatalities and injuries – as well as mitigate damage.
The National Hurricane Conference that wrapped up last week in New Orleans really hit this point home for me. The director of the National Hurricane Center, Dr. Rick Knabb, spoke time and again about not focusing on the categories. It’s all about impact, pure and simple. When a tropical storm or hurricane affects land, someone is going to have a bad day, always. Who that someone is and where they live is impossible to know ahead of time, not down to street level. It may never get that good so we have to think of a tropical storm or a hurricane as a threat to our lives -every time. This does not mean panic and disarray every time a storm or hurricane heads your way. It does mean TAKE IT SERIOUSLY and do not downplay the threat based on category. Read the Hurricane Local Statements, follow people on Twitter who can provide you with quality info and intel. Know that you are facing a force of nature immensely larger than anything you can possibly fathom. Do that and you’re far more likely to survive and be in a position to recover faster.
I am very impressed at the path the NHC is taking this year and beyond. Their leadership is excellent and the staff is the best in the world at what they do. New products and enhancements to old ones will be coming out over the next few years. This will help in the understanding of what to expect but in the end, it is up to each individual who lives within the reach of tropical storms and hurricanes (this means people who live 500 miles inland) to know the enemy. As G.I. Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle!”.