Hurricane Center Chief Urges Preparation: Storms Don’t Care About Recession

May 15, 2009

Tropical storms are unpredictable, but as the National Hurricane Center’s director contemplates ways to improve forecasting errors and communicating with the public, he is confident he has an ally at the Federal Emergency management Agency (FEMA).

Bill Read celebrated the news recently that a Louisiana Republican agreed to stop blocking the confirmation of Craig Fugate to lead the nation’s emergency management agency. The Senate confirmed the former Florida emergency management chief’s nomination later the same day.

“From what I know, he knows the hurricane program, and there’s a comforting thought,” said Read, who was named director of the hurricane center in January 2008. “A lot of our coordination and briefing of the first responders at the national level goes through FEMA. Having someone at the helm there who knows the problems that are out there is great.”

Read sat down for an interview during the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale.
AP: What were some of the lessons you learned as a rookie hurricane center director in 2008?
Read: There’s a lot of differences as you move around the coast, as to how different states or even communities react to or prepare for a hurricane. That’s a challenge that makes it hard for us sometimes to do the right kind of communication with each state. We have to broaden our view a little bit to make sure everyone understands what we’re talking about.

AP: The hurricane center is changing how it presents the threat of storm surge. A new graphic will show how deep the water could get inland, instead of just the estimated storm surge at sea level.

Read: The other thing we’re doing is the probability of storm surge, in an elevation sense. It’s an uncertain forecast, the track of the storm, and it’s even more uncertain exactly where the worst of the storm surge will be. What folks will be able to do is get on our Web site, and there’s a graphics page with the storm and the thumbnails of different aspects of the forecast. One of them will be the probability of storm surge. Say your street elevation is 8 feet above sea level and you want to know the chance of it exceeding 8 feet. Punch in the number and a map will come up along the coast showing the probability of 8 feet (of storm surge).

AP: You’re also changing the Saffir-Simpson scale, the five-category system used to describe hurricane strength, regarding storm surge. Along with a range of wind speeds, the scale included a range of potential storm surges.

Read: That’s where we’ve gotten into trouble, using that scale for what we think the surge is. When we have a very large storm like Ike, the values go above what the suggested range is. A very small storm like Charley, they go below. Even worse than that, it varies from coast to coast. If you get the exact same meteorology storm as Ike hitting in Texas, getting 16 feet above sea level, and run that into Daytona Beach, you’re probably going to get around 6 or 7 feet. It’s a totally different problem. In the advisories, the Saffir-Simpson scale will still be in there, and the advisories will still depict the storm surge that’s expected, we’re just not going to have those tables that tie the two together. This way it will correctly depict what the storm surge threat really is, and not have to constantly remind people that the table isn’t correct for this particular storm.

AP: Several workshops at this conference focus on using the Internet and social media tools to get storm information to the public. Knowing that’s what emergency management officials are thinking about, how does that affect the hurricane center? Are you thinking about posting forecasts on Twitter, for example?

Read: We are looking into that. We haven’t figured exactly what yet, but maybe we’ll push out the headline portion and “go to the Web site to get full details on the advisory.” Fortunately, it’s a longer-fuse problem with hurricanes than tornadoes, where seconds count. We have time on our side, so I see that as a potential avenue for getting the word out. We’re investigating what it would take to pull that off. We’re doing podcasts, both audio and video this year. We’re still working out some of the wrinkles on that but when we’re in the watch/warning phase, you might see my smiling face or someone else’s on there with the latest information on the storm given to you in a conversational thing instead of just in a formatted advisory or a graphic.

AP: Forecast errors in storm tracking have much improved, resulting in a narrower cone around a storm’s projected path.

Read: We keep looking at other ways to convey those uncertainties. This year on the Web site, instead of having that skinny black line that we loathe because people misuse it — they think that’s exactly where the storm’s going to go — you’ll be able to find that but the graphic won’t show that line to start with. You’ll have to toggle the graphic to get the line back in. Hopefully we’ll get across to people that the center will most likely be somewhere in that cone rather than right down that line.

AP: How does your constant message of storm preparedness change in this poor economic climate?

Read: The need to prepare doesn’t go away. Hurricanes don’t care about the economy, unfortunately. If you have to evacuate, that becomes a challenge and can become somewhat expensive, but there are shelters as an option, versus the motel route. If you don’t have to evacuate, I think some of the key things are to look at the types of resources you need for three to seven days to ride out the storm. It doesn’t have to be an expensive process. Plenty of nonperishable goods don’t cost a lot of money, and if you buy them over a sequence of time — this week at the grocery add a package of tuna fish cans, next week add some crackers, the week after that some canned vegetables — it doesn’t take too long to build up a stockpile of food. It’s not like your buying this and if you don’t use it, it’s money down the drain — it’s food you’re still going to be able to eat after hurricane season is over. You have to be able to take care of your family if there’s a hurricane.

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