Hurricane Season Forecast Flaws Worth Remembering

By Brian K. Sullivan | April 10, 2015

The Colorado State University hurricane forecast for the Atlantic Ocean came out Thursday and called for seven named storms. That would be the fewest since 1997.

The CSU forecast will be followed soon by a host of others, most of which will probably also call for a lackluster season. This may seem like good news, but the forecast for how many storms may rise up in the Atlantic from June 1 to Nov. 30 doesn’t predict how many will end up hitting you.

Let’s put it another way: Say there was a blindfolded man who throws rocks in your general direction once a year. This year he has seven rocks rather than 12, which is the number of storms an average Atlantic season produces. When he starts firing, you’ll still want to pay attention.

“I dislike seasonal forecasts, I don’t find them terribly helpful,” said James Franklin, branch chief of the National Hurricane Center’s Hurricane Specialist Unit in Miami. “Our message to the public is the same and ought to be the same no matter what.”

People need to be ready, Franklin said in an interview last week at the National Hurricane Conference in Austin, Texas.

Franklin knows what he is talking about from personal experience. He moved his family to southern Florida in 1992. That year, the Atlantic season produced just six storms. Yet one of them, Andrew, ran over his house.

It wiped out a lot of other houses, too. In the U.S., Andrew directly or indirectly killed 65 people, destroyed 49,000 homes and damaged 108,000 more.

False Security

Looking at the numbers alone just builds up a false sense of security, said Chuck Watson, director of research and development at Kinetic Analysis Corp., a risk assessment firm in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“People think ‘oh, a below-normal year, I don’t have to worry,’” Watson said by phone from his office in Savannah, Georgia. “Then they get burned by the one storm that was bad that happened to hit them.”

Other factors can lead people to believe they are safe such as building codes. Just because a house is built to code doesn’t mean it can withstand a storm, said Julie Rochman, chief executive officer for the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety in Tampa, Florida.

“It just means it is designed to stay up long enough for you to get out,” Rochman said.
What about houses that are built beyond the necessary codes? Rochman said that just means the house may still be there when you get back.

$10 Trillion

The U.S. has $10 trillion of property built in hurricane- prone areas, Rochman said.

“We know a hurricane will make landfall, and yet we continue to build in vulnerable places in brittle ways,” Rochman said. “That is a bad idea.”

Phil Klotzbach, Colorado State’s lead author, agrees with everyone else. Every forecast the research team issues includes the caveat that numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Klotzbach’s example is 1983, which had four storms. One of them was Alicia, which killed 21 people and caused $2 billion in damage when it hit the Texas coast and continued inland through Oklahoma and beyond.

“It just takes that one storm near you,” he said, “to make it a more active season.”

(With assistance from Naureen S. Malik and Christine Buurma in New York.)

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