Important change for hurricane warnings in 2014

Jason Sickles
An example of the map the National Hurricane Center will begin issuing in 2014 to show potential storm surge flooding. (National Hurricane Center)

A common misconception about hurricanes is that wind is your worst enemy.

“Most people, when they hear hurricane, think wind first and maybe water second,” said Jamie Rhome, storm surge specialist at the National Hurricane Center. “Given the fact that water is killing more people, we’ve got to start thinking water first.”

On Friday, the National Hurricane Center announced that it will add storm surge maps to text warnings when the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season begins in June.

The color-coded maps will show geographical areas where inundation from storm surge could occur and how high water might reach. The maps will be updated every six hours during a threat.

“A lot of coastal residents, including those vulnerable to storm surge, simply don’t understand storm surge,” Rhome said. “This map is one of several steps aimed at improving communication and better highlighting the risk.”

Storm surge — an abnormal rise of water pushed onto shore by a hurricane — was the culprit in the three deadliest storms in U.S. history: the Galveston hurricane of 1900 (more 8,000 killed), the Lake Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 (2,500 killed) and Hurricane Katrina of 2005 (more than 1,800 killed).

While those tragedies were all major hurricanes, Superstorm Sandy in 2012 proved that even a post-tropical cyclone can still produce catastrophic storm surge. Sandy caught many people off-guard when the storm drove a 9-foot surge of water above ground in parts of New Jersey and New York.

For the last few years, meteorologists and emergency managers have been working on ways to get the public to think beyond wind-strengths associated with hurricane forecasts.

“What Sandy did was highlight the extreme urgency of this effort,” Rhome said. “Wind and surge don’t always go hand in hand.”

Friday’s announcement was welcome news in forecasting circles.

“This is a much, much needed step,” meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote on Twitter.

Houston TV weatherman Tim Heller said storm surges are the most misunderstood part of a hurricane.

“This will help get people out of the path of the storm,” said Heller, chief meteorologist at KTRK-TV.

In 2005, Houston freeways were paralyzed by residents fleeing to get out of town ahead of Hurricane Rita.

“Hopefully the maps might also show people where they don’t have to evacuate,” Heller said.

The National Weather Service says the maps will be used on an experimental basis for at least two years while they collect feedback from emergency personnel and the public. Heller says he knows the amount of planning that has gone into the maps and doesn’t doubt their value.

“No. 1, I hope we never have to use it, but I’m glad we have it just in case,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to show them how high the water will be in their yard.”