Annual Hurricane Forecast Prompts Readiness Talk With the official June 1 hurricane season opening, forecasting organizations have released their rough predictions for this year's storm activity. Hurricane expert Dr. William Masters sums up the consensus of three forecasting organizations on his Weather Underground blog: "All three major seasonal forecasting groups [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Colorado State University (CSU), and British private forecaster Tropical Storm Risk, Inc. (TSR)] are calling for a near-average Atlantic hurricane season in 2009." According to Masters' blog, the long-range forecasts tend to be slightly more accurate than a simple guess based on averages. June estimates by the Colorado State researchers, for example, "have historically offered a skill of 20 - 30% higher than a 'no-skill' forecast using climatology," Masters says. What really will happen, of course, is still anyone's guess. The NOAA forecast, for example, is quite broadly worded: NOAA estimates "a 50% chance of a near-normal season," but also "a 25% chance of an above-normal season and a 25% chance of a below-normal season." More specifically, NOAA offers 70% confidence that this year will see 9 to 14 named storms, 4 to 7 hurricanes, and 1 to 3 major hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf regions. Ready?
More than anything, the annual forecasts serve as notification to people living on the coast that, yes, hurricanes do come in summer and fall, and, yes, someday one will actually strike where you live (if you live that long). And, yes, it could actually be this year. Responsible politicians took the opportunity to urge citizens to get ready. Charlie Crist, governor of Florida, designated May 24-30 as "Hurricane Preparedness Week." A TampaBay.com blog followed Governor Crist as he helped a St. Petersburg family stock up on emergency supplies at the Home Depot. After a meeting with FEMA officials, even President Obama got in on the act, urging Americans to take personal responsibility for hurricane readiness. The McClatchy news service covers the President's comments ("Obama: Hurricane readiness is residents' responsibility," by Steven Thomma). Or Not?
Unfortunately, most coastal residents aren't heeding the advice. That's according to a Mason-Dixon poll released in May. The survey of 1,100 adults from Texas to Maine found that more than half of respondents are not prepared for a storm. Forty-eight percent do not have flood insurance, and about 16% mistakenly think that the government will provide emergency food, water, and other basics immediately after a catastrophic storm strikes. (In fact, says FEMA, government resources are not sufficient to meet all emergency requirements in major hurricanes.) The South Florida Sun-Sentinel covers the poll results ("Poll: More than half of coastal residents in U.S. aren't ready for a hurricane," by Ken Kaye). Homeland Security Today magazine has coverage in two stories ("2009 hurricane season is here," by Michael Peltier, and "Hurricane, disaster preparedness complacency continues to grow," by Anthony L. Kimery). Federal officials voiced particular concern about the state of readiness in parts of the coast that haven't been hit by storms in a long time. Despite their run of good luck, those regions are statistically as likely to get struck in any given year as any other part of the coastline. "Areas that have been hit recently actually tend to be more responsive to [the risk]," pointed out Louis Uccellini, who directs the National Weather Service's National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), at a White House briefing on May 29. "We are particularly concerned for areas where there's been a tremendous population growth and have not experienced a hurricane. These people do not really fully comprehend or understand the types of dangers that face them, whether it's wind, rain, or a storm surge." And Uccellini observed, "It only takes one storm — one land-falling storm — to make for a bad season." In truth, residents of hurricane country probably still have months to get ready. Historically, storms rarely make landfall in June. According to storm expert Dr. Masters, one factor that predictors use – the Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential (TCHP) – measures the temperature of ocean water to a depth of about 150 meters. The deeper the layer of warm water, the higher the TCHP (over 80 supports rapid hurricane formation). As the map below shows, TCHP levels in May of 2009 where far below the record highs from May 2005.
PHOTO: NOAA/AOML Over the course of decades, of course, every coastal state gets hit by storms — repeatedly. These images of historic storm tracks for Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, and Massachusetts, dating back to the 1850s, are provided by the NOAA. The pictures tell the story — it's not a question of whether. It's only a question of when.