MIAMI (AP) — During a hurricane, storm surge is one of the greatest threats to life and land, yet many people don't understand the dire warnings from forecasters to get out of its way. So this season, they hope to offer easy-to-understand, color-coded maps and change the way they talk to the public.
Simply put, storm surge is the abnormal rise of sea water. Predicting it is far more complicated, and so is explaining it, as forecasters at the National Hurricane Center discovered, again, during a review of Superstorm Sandy.
"Scientists by their very nature use very sophisticated language, technical language," said Jamie Rhome, leader of the hurricane center's storm surge team. "It turns out that nobody else understands what we're talking about. So once we figured that out, we started using more plain language."
Forecasts during Sandy were exceptionally accurate, but often confusing. Perhaps because so many things contribute to storm surge: intensity, pressure, forward speed, size, where it makes landfall and other factors.
Most people believe storm surge is a wall of water, similar to a tsunami, but it's actually just sea water being pushed toward the shore by winds. It can happen quickly and move miles inland, flooding areas not accustomed to being inundated with sea water.
Large death tolls have been blamed storm surge. At least 1,500 people died during Hurricane Katrina either directly or indirectly because of storm surge, the hurricane center said.
To better explain the danger, forecasters talked to focus groups consisting of local and state officials, law enforcement and hospital associations and other people from Maine to New Orleans. One thing they found out is that when they talk about storm surge, they should say "height" instead of "depth" when explaining how water levels might change.
"We were using 'depth,' thinking this was very clear. It turns out that nobody else does," Rhome said. "They're waiting for height, how high it is, and I would never have guessed in a million years that one word — one word — makes a difference in how people interpret something."
Forecasters also will try to stress that the storm surge isn't just from the ocean and can come from other bodies of water such as sounds, bays and lakes, sometimes well inland.
The hurricane center also plans to show people where to expect storm surge with high-resolution, color-coded maps, much like a radar map on the local news showing rain and severe weather. If forecasters can't post the maps on the hurricane center's website this storm season, which begins June 1, the plan is to have the maps ready in 2014.
The storm season is expected to be a busy one, with federal forecasters on Thursday predicting 13 to 20 named Atlantic storms, seven to 11 of which will strengthen to hurricanes. Three to six of those are forecast to become major hurricanes.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration evaluation of the weather service's performance during Sandy also recommended increasing the number of storm surge forecasters at the hurricane center, and providing potential storm surge hazards at least 48 hours before the onset of tropical storm or gale-force winds.
Miami-Dade Emergency Management Director Curt Sommerhoff said his priority is getting the public to understand that the county's evacuation zones are based on storm surge, not hurricane winds.
New data from the hurricane center's storm surge models prompted the county to redraw its storm surge planning zones to include inland areas along canals and rivers that previously weren't identified as being at risk for storm surge.
"That's the new message, the surge danger well inland, well in from the coast," Sommerhoff said.
Separate storm surge warnings, similar to current tropical storm or hurricane warnings, will be rolled out in 2015.
The hurricane center dropped estimates for storm surge and inland flooding from its wind scale three years ago because the predictions often didn't match what actually happened. For example, Hurricane Ike was a Category 2 with winds of at least 96 mph when it hit the Texas coast in 2008, but its storm surges was much greater than a typical Category 2 storm.
"Storm surges can behave so differently from storm to storm that you can't just apply a single number or use a scale like you can with the wind. That's been tough, trying to get people to understand that every storm is different," Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist who has taken the lead on social science at the hurricane center.
Berg said Hurricane Irene didn't produce the storm surge in 2011 that some expected, and the following year, many people were surprised by Sandy's extreme tides and flooding.
Still, the advisories for Sandy were dramatically improved from the ones for Ike, explaining storm surge in layman's terms and easy-to-read bullet points instead of long pages of jargon that required meteorologists and emergency officials to make their own calculations.
The progress may seem subtle, but Berg believes it's helping emergency managers make better decisions about whether to order evacuations.
"For as bad as Sandy was, it almost makes you wonder what would have happened had we not made some of these changes since Ike," Berg said. "I would hope that because of these new changes, they're more educated and they're more prepared to make those evacuation decisions when needed."
Newcomer to Top 50 among five companies selected for Naval contract
Both sets of figures — adjusted to cancel out seasonal changes — were released by the U.S. Labor Department.
Texas declined by five rigs, West Virginia dropped three and Louisiana was down two.
A federal appeals court in New Orleans has upheld a federal safety board's right to investigate the role of Transocean Deepwater Drilling Corp. in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.
A supporter of a lawsuit against the oil industry has been re-nominated to a seat on a south Louisiana flood control board despite opposition from Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The nominating committee for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East was set Thursday to nominate applicants for two people on the board whose terms have expired.
Restaurant could see ‘a little facelift,’ Bobby Butcher tells Daily Report.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell says he won't approve a Cameron Parish Police Jury resolution to hire outside attorneys for such a lawsuit until the resolution is amended. Caldwell's Sept. 15 letter says the resolution must make clear that those attorneys will represent the parish alone — not the state.
Michelle D. Lavergne, who worked for the Lafayette law office of L. Clayton Burgess for 13 years, faces up to 10 years in prison.
Sonnier, former media buyer and account exec at Sides, joins Acadian companies as marketing specialist; Maggard, who most recently worked for Potenza, joins Russo as director of media and PR.
New recreation/fitness trend taking over old Crazy Charlie’s on Ambassador Caffery Parkway.
Authorities said that a Chevron Corp. subsidiary was still releasing natural gas Sunday from a pipeline off the Louisiana coast where a Saturday incident killed a maintenance worker.
Meet the WWMB Class of 2014, extraordinary women guiding our exceptional community
Software development center represents third such project in Hub City this year.
Elizabeth Abdalla and Abform are poised for a new era of growth.
Lafayette’s most highly regarded attorneys were honored by their own at the Hall of Fame Banquet sponsored by the Lafayette Bar Association.
Collaboration and relationships give you the help you want — and the help you need.
A look at recent promotions, hirings and recognitions from Acadiana's business community.
Who doesn’t like grilled cheese?
There has been much progress in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed, but there is still work to be done.
Amid widespread criticism, two former U.S. senators say they are not lobbying Congress on behalf of a shady Russian bank, although a federal disclosure suggests otherwise.
Banks are the ones taking the financial hit for retail security breaches, and that just doesn’t seem fair.
It’s time to embrace a new regional model for economic development.
The state labor department figures released Friday show the initial claims decreased to 1,961 from the previous week's total of 2,237. For the comparable week a year earlier, there were 2,190 claims.
Hurry, rush to Jersey’s Daiquiris Sports Bar in Broussard for a cold one because at noon tomorrow its license is suspended for two months by the state!