Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Warning Residents With Unconventional Means

It may seem hard to believe, given our recent hurricane history, but there was a time, not that long ago, when a hurricane was a rare event. In the 1970's, '80's and early 1990's, a hurricane would come along only four or five times a year, often in the safe, far reaches of the tropical Atlantic Ocean.

Since 1995, however, hurricanes have become the rule, not the exception.

The National Hurricane Center reports that the 12 years since 1995 has seen more hurricanes than any other 12 year period in recorded history.

We had our share of those storms in 2004 and 2005 as Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne and Wilma all slammed into the Sunshine State. The 2005 season was worse as a seemingly endless string of tropical storms and hurricanes threatened the United States.

At the top of that list, of course, were Rita and Katrina. Folks in Texas and southwest Louisiana are still recovering from the powerful storms.

The National Weather Service calls Katrina the "most destructive hurricane to ever strike" the United States. Estimates from the insurance industry topped $60 billion in insured losses from Katrina. NOAA says the storm "could cost the Gulf Coast states as much as an additional $120 billion."

The experts who study tropical cyclone patterns and activity say this current period of above-average hurricane activity is likely to continue, perhaps for many more years. The scientists say these above-average periods run in cycles and our current cycle may last another 10 to 20 years.

With so many potential hurricanes looming in our future, helping people prepare for the storm and knowing how to react is quite a challenge for the men and women of the National Weather Service. In August of 2004, forecasters at the National Weather Service Melbourne, Florida office met that challenge head on as Hurricane Charley bore down on central Florida.

Charley, a small, but powerful Category 4 hurricane, had slammed into Florida's southwest coast on the morning of August 13, 2005. Hours after striking Charlotte Harbor, Charley remained a destructive and powerful hurricane as it headed for the Orlando-metro area with sustained winds topping 100 mph.

Forecasters at the Melbourne weather office feared that an update on Charley's dangerous wind conditions would get lost in the dozens of weather bulletins already issued from their office and the National Hurricane Center. Their solution was simple, yet brilliant: they put out a tornado warning.

"We ended up using a wrench for a hammer," said Dennis Decker, the warning Coordination Meteorologist with the Melbourne office.

There was no tornado but the tornado warning got the attention of all the television and radio stations in the Orlando area. The tornado warning allowed the National Weather Service to get the word out quickly that Charley's 100 mph winds were about 30 minutes away.

"When you do something outside of the box like that, you wonder how the people up the chain of command in the Weather Service are going to react," said Decker. "They basically confirmed that it was a good idea."

One of the lessons from the 2004 Hurricane season was that you don't have to be on the coastline to be affected by the winds of a hurricane. As residents of Orlando discovered during Hurricane Charley, these monster storms can affect even the areas that many people head to, when evacuated from the coast. That presents a unique challenge to forecasters at the Weather Service, and that may require even more thinking outside the box.

Posted at 8:00 AM