April 25, 2006

Experts debate beefing up future hurricane warnings

By Adam Tanner

MONTEREY, Calif (Reuters) - Weather forecasters need to do
a better job of translating their scientific data about
threatening hurricanes into better-understood warnings, several
experts said at a conference on Tuesday.

Ahead of the June 1 start to the Atlantic hurricane season,
researchers at the American Meteorological Society's annual
Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology pondered the
lessons of last year's devastating hurricanes.

"There is a lack of communication between the scientists
and the risk-management folks," said Sytske Kimball, assistant
professor of meteorology at the University of South Alabama who
chaired a discussion on the issue. "We speak different
languages, use different terminologies."

"The forecast of Katrina was actually very good, including
the surge," she continued. "But people just didn't leave."

About 90 percent of New Orleans residents did actually
evacuate as Hurricane Katrina approached in late August 2005,
but tens of thousands stayed behind, many due to a lack of
transportation. Katrina ended up killing 1,300 people and
causing at least $75 billion in damage across the U.S. Gulf

Barry Goldsmith, a National Weather Service forecaster in
the Tampa, Florida, area, said his office in recent years has
sought to spell out in graphic language what winds of 115 mph,
rainfall of 5-10 inches and storm surge of 5-7 feet might mean
for a particular community.

"Is it any good if the consumers in the end game don't take
any action to protect themselves?" he asked.

He suggested that alerts might warn that all older mobile
homes may be destroyed and that coastal residents who do not
evacuate will face a life-threatening situation. "When used
judiciously, these statements are a clarion call to action,"
Goldsmith told the conference in Monterey, California.


In an interview, U.S. National Hurricane Center director
Max Mayfield expressed caution about issuing dire warnings
directly to the public, saying local officials should be the
ones making recommendations on evacuations and preparations.

"Somehow you've got to let people understand what, you
know, 120 mile an hour winds are or what 15 feet of storms are,
what that really means," he told Reuters.

"Most people respond to what their local officials tell
them to do," said Mayfield, a 34-year veteran of the weather
service. "I'm very comfortable in putting our resources into
training these state and local emergency managers."

At the same time, the public is getting information
directly from the National Weather Service in unprecedented
quantity because of the Internet. Mayfield said the weather
service saw between six and eight billion hits on its Web site
last year.

Because weather forecasting cannot always predict what
approaching storms will do or where they will hit, several
experts spoke of a delicate balance between prudent precaution
and overreaction.

Eva Regnier, assistant professor of decision science at the
Naval Postgraduate School's Defense Resources Management
Institute in Monterey, California, said evacuating large
population centers can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and
that one person typically dies per one million people on the

"It is not optimal to evacuate every time there is a tiny
threat," she said.

At the week-long conference, experts have also debated the
impact of global warming, with some researchers saying man-made
greenhouse gases have helped boost the number of Atlantic