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Stormy Summer of 2005 Prompted Hurricane Forecast Improvements

Wilmasurge

Powerful Hurricane Wilma’s storm surge inundated the lower Florida Keys in October 2005. (Photo by Jeff Pinkus)

The powerful hurricanes that prowled the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2005 prompted evacuation orders that sent millions of people from Houston to Key West scrambling for safety. The evacuations saved lives, but for people who endured the expense, tension and disruption of an evacuation only to see the storms come ashore far from their homes, it was a deeply annoying experience.

Many of those coastal residents decided that that was the last time they were going to obey an evacuation order. Come what may, they were staying put.

That alarmed scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If coastal residents refused to budge in the face of another Katrina-type hurricane, thousands would die.

“We asked ourselves what do we need to do to make forecasts so good that people will believe them and evacuate and do everything they need to do to protect their homes,” said Robert Atlas, director of NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

“The answer was to eliminate false alarms,” Atlas said.

In 2007, NOAA launched its Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project. The main goal of the ten-year effort is to improve the accuracy and reliability of hurricane forecasts and to be able to provide those forecasts seven days ahead of a storm’s landfall. Scientists working on the project also want to improve their ability to forecast whether a hurricane will rapidly intensify.

An outgrowth of the effort is a new computer program known as the Hurricane Weather Research and Forecasting model, or HWRF. The model incorporates much more data about conditions in and around a hurricane, and this has greatly improved hurricane forecasting.

The accuracy of HWRF was dramatically demonstrated during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center correctly predicted that Hurricane Sandy would make landfall in New Jersey six days before the storm came ashore there on October 29.

Atlas said NOAA can continue to improve the accuracy of its forecasts, but to do so will require more powerful computers capable of handling more data about hurricanes as they develop.

“That’s absolutely essential,” Atlas said. “We’re limited by the amount of computing we have.”

NOAA still has several years to go to complete its work on HWRF, and Atlas thinks it can meet its goals. “If the nation wants to do it, it will get done,” he said.

North Carolina author Willie Drye’s new book, For Sale–American Paradise, will be published October 1 by Lyons Press.