Storm Surge Warnings Might Be Added to Weather Alerts

April 2, 2010

We’re still a couple of months away from the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, but that’s not too soon for the National Hurricane Center (NHC) to be considering a new addition to their already vast collection of watches and warnings typically issued during hurricane seasons.

Specifically, NHC officials pitched the idea of a storm-surge warning to the group of first responders, meteorologists and emergency managers who attended the recent 2010 National Hurricane Conference held in Orlando, Florida, but no actual decision will be made for another two or three years.

What’s the reasoning behind a storm surge warning? It’s because there are places that aren’t necessarily inside the cones of hurricanes but are still susceptible to storm surge, and would benefit from such warnings, according to Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Read explained, “In a storm like Hurricane Ike, surges are far more dangerous than wind in a particular location. We’re thinking we need to have that warning.”

Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008, damaged 75% of the houses in Galveston, Texas, but also submerged many acres of farmland and ranches in salt water, ruined still more acres of vegetation, and scoured away beaches.

If storm surge warnings are adopted, they will take two or three years to implement because of the technical requirements involved in incorporating surge models into pre-existing tide levels and rainfall runoff information. Two years ago, Read said the NHC was working on a program that could mate a Google application with storm surge data, so that property owners could determine the flooding threat from any category of storm.

With the debate on surge warnings comes the biggest change to the hurricane warning system in several decades: beginning in mid-may, the NHC will begin issuing storm watches and warnings roughly half a day sooner than it used to, so when a storm is approaching land, forecasters will send watches advising tropical storm conditions could be expected in 48 hours, rather than in 36, while warnings will be sent 36 hours ahead, not 24. By the middle of this decade, the NHC expects to be able to issue forecasts seven days out.

The Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1, and despite vulnerable areas in the US, the NHC’s main concern this summer will be Haiti, where over a million people were made homeless by January’s devastating earthquake. Read says that this year, if a storm is heading in that direction, more and earlier briefings will be held, to give residents more time to prepare.

“Most people know we’ve got an impossible situation there,” Read said. “God forbid a major hurricane went across Haiti while we have this many people in a distressed state during the peak of the hurricane season.”