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Forecasters working to reduce unnecessary hurricane evacuations

Atlantic hurricane season begins Thursday with more people than ever living in hurricane-prone Florida.
Forecasters working to reduce unnecessary hurricane evacuations
Posted at 12:28 PM, May 31, 2023

The National Hurricane Center is getting ready for the start of hurricane season on Thursday, with the expectation that this year will be a relatively average year for tropical activity. 

Forecasters project the Atlantic basin will have 12-17 named storms, five to nine hurricanes, and one to four major hurricanes. 

Reducing the need to evacuate

As forecasting improves, the National Hurricane Center has been able to reduce the size of its forecasting cone and improve its storm surge models. These combined help emergency managers decide who should evacuate and who should stay put during hurricanes. 

“We want to be as accurate as possible,” said Robbie Berg, a senior hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center. “We also want to make sure that we're not over-evacuating too many people because unfortunately, we have seen deaths in cases where people are trying to evacuate their homes and maybe it's just too much stress on them, the heat can be bad, and so we lose people that way as well.”

One example of this improved forecasting ability came in 2020 when models started shifting Hurricane Laura closer to the Houston metropolitan area and its 7.3 million residents. The major hurricane struck western Louisiana, but Houston was not completely ruled out from the official forecast until close to landfall.

“If Laura had threatened that area, we would have had a lot more evacuations,” he said. “But because of the way that we do the forecasting, we assess risk, we were able to keep many of those people at home. They did not need to evacuate and they ended up being safe.”

SEE MORE: Meteorologists predict 'near-normal' 2023 Atlantic hurricane season

Storm surge is top cause of hurricane deaths

According to the National Hurricane Center, storm surge is the leading cause of hurricane-related deaths in the U.S. One reason that storm surge can be so dangerous is small changes to the forecast can cause major changes in how much storm surge one location may have. 

Berg has experienced how much storm surge forecasting has changed since he started at the National Hurricane Center in 2002.

“Back at that time, we would just run the official forecast through the model and it would give you a footprint of essentially what kind of surge would happen if that forecast was perfect,” he said. “But we know that forecasts aren't perfect.”

To combat this, the National Hurricane Center has improved its SLOSH model to give residents and emergency managers a better idea of how much storm surge they could see. The model helps project storm surges based on small changes to a storm’s track or intensity. 

“We take the perfect forecast and we assume that the track could shift, it could get bigger, it could get stronger, and all of those simulations get kind of put in together as a family of storms,” Berg said. “And then we can more accurately assess the risk of storm surge, not just assuming a perfect forecast, but what are the different possibilities that storm could do?”

More people living in hurricane-prone Florida

Florida became the fastest-growing state in 2022, growing its population by 1.9%. Between 2018 and 2022, U.S. Census data indicates Florida added 1 million new residents. 

Many of those coming from other parts of the U.S. might not know what it’s like to prepare for a hurricane. But some of those facing their first hurricane might be more eager to prepare for one.

“I mean, we are concerned about people that may not understand hurricanes moving to the state, maybe not being prepared, however, I would say there's still a group of people that come that might be scared of hurricanes because they've never experienced it before. And so they may still take precautions,” Berg said. 

Oftentimes, it’s longtime residents of an area that don’t take proper precautions, Berg suggested.

“I think part of the problem we're seeing is that people who have experienced storms in the past may not have actually experienced the worst of those storms,” he said. “And so when the next storm, next hurricane comes along, they think they can survive this next storm because of what they experienced in the past. And so those people are not taking the necessary precautions.”

SEE MORE: The US Southeast and Gulf Coasts see record sea level rise

El Niño, climate change impacting 2023 forecast

The National Hurricane Center noted that it redefined what is considered normal three years ago, increasing the average number of tropical systems a year in the Atlantic basin from 12 to 14. 

While there have tended to be more tropical systems in recent years, there is one major factor competing against hurricane development this year. Warmer waters of an expected El Niño could reduce hurricane activity in the Atlantic. Forecasters also have seen warmer sea surface temperatures and a more active West Africa monsoon, which would likely increase activity.

These competing factors are a reason forecasters think this year will be “average.”

“It's kind of, you know, still out there which one's going to win out,” Berg said. “All that being said is that we have to prepare this year just like we would any other year.”

Don't wait to prepare, even if you're well inland

Although as of Wednesday, no tropical systems actively pose a threat to the U.S., forecasters say now is the time to prepare for hurricanes. 

“My suggestion would be as you go to the grocery store now, on a weekly basis to do your regular shopping, start picking up extra supplies, things you might need,” Berg said. "This way you're not waiting until last minute when you're stressed and there's just so much chaos. Having that done in the months prior to a storm is gonna be much better on your sanity and your stress levels when that storm does threaten.”

He also noted that those inland should pay attention to hurricane season. One of the leading causes of death related to hurricanes is inland flooding. 

“And it's not just the South, it's anywhere inland, along the coast from New England southward into Texas, including the Caribbean,” Berg said. “Everybody needs to understand the heavy rain threat.”

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