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New Tools, New Forecast, But Officials Say 'Prepare the Same' For Hurricane Season

Jeff Huffman

The 2014 Hurricane Season is just two weeks away, and officials continue to remind Floridians to prepare the same no matter the forecast.Every year, we hear the forecast. Every year, officials find new ways of communicating the wide-ranging hazards hurricanes or tropical storms can pose. And this year, there’s even a new product from the National Hurricane Center. But the message never really changes.

“Overall seasonal activity does not correlate to landfall impacts. Even in below average years, people die.”

Dr. Rick Knabb, Director of the National Hurricane Center, pointed out that even in last year’s relatively weak season, there were dozens of fatalities and multiple landfalls in the country of Mexico. In his address at the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference this week, he referenced many seasons where the overall number of storms were not related to the impacts of land-falling systems, such as 1992 and 1983. Andrew and Alicia were the only major hurricanes in those years, yet they caused catastrophic damage in south Florida and southeast Texas. Conversely, 2010 was an extremely active season in the Tropical Atlantic when 12 hurricanes formed, 5 of them major, yet none hit the United States directly.

Knabb went on to point out that Floridians are at risk every year from multiple hazards of tropical storms and hurricanes in the state of Florida. “No matter where it is you live, no matter what the seasonal forecasts say, no matter what last year was like or what the last ten years have been like, no matter how long you’ve lived here; you could experience wind or water hazards that could be life threatening this year.”

The consensus of many lead forecasters is for a below-average hurricane season, largely attributed to what is expected to be a developing El Nino in the eastern Pacific by late summer. The Director of FEMA, Craig Fugate, is no stranger to hurricanes and the impact they can have on Florida. He was the state’s acting emergency management director during the infamous 2004 season, also a year when El Nino conditions were expected. Florida was dealt significant impacts from four hurricanes that year, three crossing the state as a Category 3 or higher.

He echoes the message, “If you go back in history, there’s been no part of Florida’s coast that has not been hit by hurricanes. There’s no part of the state that’s more than 100 miles from the coast. Seasonal forecasts don’t mean anything. If you live in Florida, you better know what to do.”

New technology could make it easier for residents to understand the hazards an approaching storm could pose this year, especially if they are near a coastline but not necessarily right along the coast. A new Storm Surge Inundation map will be released by The National Hurricane Center in advance of every storm. GIS tools make this map especially useful, as it will better depict which neighborhoods, some miles from the coast, that could be flooded by a storm surge and how high the water could rise above ground level for that particular location.

But even with the new tools and a forecast for a relatively “mild” season, many Floridians are likely complacent. The last time a hurricane hit the state, YouTube and Facebook were just a year old and Twitter didn’t even exist. For a state that averages one landfall every other year yet hasn’t seen one since 2005, probabilities suggest Florida is now overdue.

Brian Koon, Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, says the risk to Floridians has not changed. “We’re going to get hurricanes in the future. It’s imperative that Floridians take hurricane season seriously and prepare accordingly.”

The message from officials this year is clear. Updated forecasts and new technology won’t keep Floridians safe. It’s up to the citizens to act, get a plan, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Fugate might have said it best, “If you have a plan and you know what you’re doing, enjoy the summer.”

You can follow Jeff Huffman on Twitter @huffmanweather.

Jeff Huffman is Chief Meteorologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In addition to his full-time position at the university's radio and television stations, WUFT-FM/TV and WRUF-TV, the latter of which he co-founded, Huffman also provides weather coverage to public radio stations throughout Florida