April 25, 2006

Experts Debate 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 Coast.

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 move.

"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 hurricanes.