Rapid Coastal Growth Places Urgency on Hurricane Forecasts, Chief Says

May 14, 2008

The rapid pace of development along hurricane-prone coasts is adding a new level of urgency for forecasters to more accurately pinpoint potential storm impact zones, the director of the National Hurricane Center said.

Recent studies show most coastal growth in the U.S. is occurring along the shores from Texas to North Carolina, where hurricanes typically do the most damage.

“For most of our coastline, the reality is that the time needed to make decisions is going to increase because there’s just so many more people that have to take actions,” Bill Read said in an interview at the start of the 22nd Annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference. “It is critically important that we make improvements.”

Read said rapid coastal growth has put pressure on communities to develop more shelter options, rather than turn solely to mass evacuations, which can be dangerous even without a storm.

Those who shelter locally could more easily return home if the storm were to change direction, leaving less work for emergency managers and freeing up the roads for first-responders.

“It would be a much more efficient way to do it,” Read said.

A recently released survey of U.S. coastal land use by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that 53 percent of new development between 1996 and 2001 occurred along the Southeastern U.S. shores between Texas and North Carolina. The data showed the trend is likely increasing.

As development continues in vulnerable coastal regions, “we’re accepting a certain level of risk,” Read said. “We get in this big debate when we actually get hit there (over) how much of that kind of expensive risk do we want to keep taking.

“I chose to buy my last house outside of the surge zone,” Read added. “I think it’s a personal responsibility issue.”

Meanwhile, Read said seasonal government hurricane forecasts that provide the public with numbers of predicted storms will likely change in the future after two back-to-back slow seasons in the U.S. have left many people frustrated with a perceived lack of accuracy.

“I get some of the same frustrations,” Read said. “But some of that’s kind of fickle because I had … accolades back in the years when big seasons were forecast and it occurred, or weak seasons were forecast and it occurred.”

Regardless, Read said government forecasts will likely now emphasize whether it is expected to be an average or above average storm season rather than the predicted number of storms.

“The idea is that it more correlates with our level of skill in the forecast to stay with the above or below normal probabilities rather than a specific number,” he said.

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