Hurricane Forecasting Then Now

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Thursday, August 25, 2011 - 1:08pm

New, more accurate models mean fewer unnecessary evacuations.

Andy Newman says if what south Florida is seeing with Hurricane Irene today had happened ten years ago, the Florida Keys would undergoing a visitors' evacuation right now.

"The evolution of science in terms of hurricanes is putting the emergency management community at ease," says Newman, who as a public relations advisor to the Florida Keys tourism industry has been in on so many evacuations, he can't even remember them all.

Officials like Newman can tell you how costly evacuations are.

It can take weeks for the tourists to return, and the bill for public service personal, police and firefighters can be astronomic.

But this year, thanks to advancements in technology, there's been no evacuation.

The computer-generated science that produces forecast models far exceed the quality of ten years ago, allowing the National Hurricane Center to produce a much narrower "cone of concern."

When combined with so-called spaghetti models, the new science gives forecasters a much more accurate idea of where and when a hurricane will become a danger to the general public.

Simply put, Newman said that Keys officials now have more time, have better information, and can make a better call as to when and if they need to evacuate visitors and residents.

It's a huge relief after decades with "better safe than sorry" and "when in doubt, get 'em out" serving as the Keys' hurricane mantras.

This time around, "we knew we were in pretty good shape as early as Monday," Newman said, a testament to how science has improved.

Irene will slide by the Keys without any talk of evacuation, something that was previously virtually unheard of for a system passing so close.

Newman emphasized there were even more important benefits to advances in hurricane forecasting than just preserving economic revenue streams for the Keys tourism industry.

"When you eliminate unnecessary evacuations, you bolster the public's confidence in the hurricane warning system," he said. "That means people are more likely to listen and to respond to a threat."

Officials credit continuing hurricane research with tightening up the forecast error track cone.

"There is not doubt that research programs being conducted by NOAA and various institutions paid huge dividends," Newman said. "The money and resources saved by local, state and federal governments by not focusing on the Keys and Florida for Irene were huge. More importantly, those resources can go to affected areas.

“Our federal lawmakers really need to step up funding for additional hurricane research,” he said. “It will save taxpayers even more money and most importantly, human lives.”
 

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