NHC fast-tracks new storm surge warnings
Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 12:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 3:06 p.m.
The National Hurricane Center is planning to add a new "storm surge warning" — along with high-resolution maps detailing surge depths — to advisories it issues when tropical systems threaten the United States.
Hurricane center officials for four years have been debating whether to completely overhaul the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, which only reflects wind speed and not the associated dangerous storm surges, rain flooding and tornado threats. The exploration began in 2008 when Hurricane Ike struck Galveston, Texas. The Category 2 storm caused significant storm surges as far away as the Florida Panhandle, taking many residents by surprise.
And then a few weeks ago, when Hurricane Isaac slammed Louisiana as a Category 1, many more residents were caught by surprise when high storm surges topped levies, flooding many towns.
Now, the hurricane center is fast-tracking the new storm surge warning concept and surge maps, though it remains unclear whether the hurricane center can get the system ready for the 2013 season.
"We've always had a storm surge warning scale. It's called feet," said hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. He said a storm surge warning may be a better fit with the other watches and warnings.
Marion County's emergency management director, sheriff's Capt. Chip Wildy, said though the additional warning may not be useful for Marion County residents, it has been needed for coastal counties.
Levy County's emergency management director, Mark Johnson, said the coastal county has a unique coastline and topography. It takes intricate tropical system details, wind speeds and direction, to determine storm surges in Yankeetown and Cedar Key.
Each time a storm heads up the west coast of Florida, Johnson speaks with National Weather Service experts in Ruskin to get an idea of what type of surge Levy residents should expect. The new system will help residents know that a serious storm surge situation is coming and to take appropriate action.
"People here understand the surge," Johnson noted, adding a warning from the weather service will get the word out quicker. "It's not our first rodeo."
After reviewing all the ideas about restructuring the Saffir-Simpson scale, hurricane center officials decided that only a storm surge warning was needed to enhance the current system. That's because the center already issues hurricane, tornado and flood advisories.
Most of the proposed, complicated scales considered the combined effects of hurricane strength and size, as well as wind and surge. A press release states the combined scales do not "help local emergency managers or members of the public make informed decisions about their particular vulnerabilities."
Officials fear a combined scale would not reflect the greatest concern for a person in a specific area. That's why more localized hurricane, tornado, flooding and now storm surge watches and warnings are more appropriate.
"NHC believes that the clearest way to communicate each of the hurricane hazards is to do so directly and distinctly, and not to conflate them as the proposed integrated scales do," the release noted.
The new surge warning would be issued by the National Weather Service to highlight exclusively the expectation of a life-threatening surge. Accompanying the warning there will also be an "easy-to-understand, high-resolution map showing the forecast inundation from storm surge," the release stated.
Both approaches are currently being developed with input from communications and social science experts to maximize the clarity and utility of the new products.
"We cannot overstate the importance of following evacuation orders and other instructions from local officials, regardless of the category or strength of a tropical storm or hurricane," officials said in the release. "Ignoring evacuation orders risks not only the lives of those who stay behind, but also the lives of first responders who may be called upon to rescue them."
Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.