Thirteen days before the start of the 2014 hurricane season, Knabb flew here aboard one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research aircraft to promote personal responsibility when it comes to storm safety.
“I don’t know what the secret sauce is to get people to prepare for a hurricane,” he says, “and to prepare a plan well ahead of any storm.”
The visit here is to one of five Gulf Coast cities the aircraft toured prior to that to promote NOAA’s weather-ready nation program.
“The U.S. was spared from a hurricane last year,” Knabb says, “but that does not mean we will be as fortunate during the 2014 season.”
He stresses that residents along the Gulf Coast should prepare now for a hurricane, before one actually threatens.
The NHC, he says, finds the increasing accuracy of its forecasts often is negated by public apathy.
Last Thursday, NOAA issued its 2014 hurricane season forecast, calling for a near-normal to below-normal season, predicting eight to 13 named systems, of which three to six will become hurricanes with one to two of those developing into major storms.
Earlier this month, the Colorado State University Forecast Team predicted fewer hurricanes this summer and fall.
Both agencies base their forecasts on an expected building of an El Niño event in the Pacific.
The El Niño effect is a warming of the surface temperatures of the Pacific which statistically is associated with the fewer hurricanes forming in the Atlantic basin.
However, any season becomes active if a hurricane makes landfall where you live, CSU forecasters warn.
“I lived through Hurricane Alicia in Houston in 1983,” Knabb remembers, “and that was a low-activity season.”
Knabb is versed at getting his messages across to the public. Before he became the NHC director in 2012, he was an on-air hurricane expert for the Weather Channel.
He stresses that Gulf Coast residents can do a lot now to prepare for the possibility of a hurricane, even though Gulf Coast landfalls peak in September.
“Find out if you are in an evacuation zone and what the evacuation routes are,” he suggests. Then, call your insurance agent to make sure your coverage is up to date and adequate. Then, make a list of the supplies you need to bring with you in the event you evacuate.”
Trying to accomplish all that a day or two before a hurricane is difficult, he warns, if not impossible.
The center is excited about offering more accurate storm surge forecasts this year, noting that more hurricane deaths are caused by flooding than by winds.
While the NHC’s accuracy in forecasting storm tracks improves each year, the frustrating aspect is the difficulty in accurate forecasting a storm’s intensity.
With increasing accuracy, NHC forecasters can predict where a storm will go five days in advance. Internal computer forecasts have extended that forecast to seven days, but the NHC is not yet ready to release them to the public.
But tied to the forecast track a storm will take is its intensity. A compact, Category One storm may miss a city altogether; a Category Four storm that might roughly be the size of the Gulf of Mexico that follows the same track would cause widespread damage and flooding.
What gives forecasters nightmares is a tropical system that forms in the gulf and balloons in intensity from a tropical storm to a major hurricane in a matter of hours, leaving little time for forecasters to issue warnings and advisories to affected residents.
“We still don’t understand all that is happening in the core of a storm,” Knabb says. “We need even more data, faster computers to handle that data and better computer models to manipulate the data.”
The value of data itself is limited without computer programs to use it to create forecast models.
One of the tools that supply that data is the Orion P3 research plane that is making the five-city, five-day tour.
Extending far behind the plane’s vertical stabilizer is a doppler radar. As the plane crisscrosses a hurricane’s eye, the radar images are fed back to the NHC in Miami in real time.
All of the technology is part of HFIP, an NHC program whose acronym stands for Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program.
Knabb points out that however accurate the NHC forecasts, they are worth very little if a person potentially affected by a hurricane has not taken the responsibility to prepare for it.
A plethora of information is available at the NHC website, www.nhc.noaa.gov.
Noting that last year’s forecasts from both the NHC and CSU were highly inaccurate, the Insurance Council of Texas flatly states “it’s anyone’s guess on what might happen during the 2014 season.”
“From an insurance perspective, we appreciate the warnings... because they serve as a wakeup call for people to go over evacuation plans and to look at their insurance coverage,” says Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the council.
The council recommends homeowners have three insurance policies:
•Windstorm — that provides coverage for hurricane-force winds and flying debris.
•Homeowner or Fire Policy — that provides coverage for burglary, theft, fire and liability
•Flood Insurance — that provides coverage from rising water.
“Seasonal hurricane forecasts are difficult and are not really important,” says John Metz, the warning coordination meteorologist at the Corpus Christi National Weather Service station. “Major hurricanes have struck Texas during both quiet and active seasons. It only takes one storm to make it a bad season for Texas.”
The Atlantic storm names to be used this season are: Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine, Kyle, Laura, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky and Wilfred.
The season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.