They Saved Lives


Last August, the National Hurricane Center unveiled changes to its warning system. For the first time, it began issuing watches and warnings specifically for storm surges ahead of a predicted hurricane. That was in addition to its usual practice of issuing warnings for high-winds, which do not necessarily correspond to storm surges. The reason for the changes, officials said at the time, was that 90% of hurricane-related deaths are caused by water—flooding, storm surges, and high surf—and people tend to greatly underestimate the danger. In 2012, for example, more than half the deaths caused by Hurricane Sandy were attributed to storm surge. “We need people to be more afraid of water,” said the Center’s former director.

The changes were put in place just before the 2017 hurricane season—on the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which killed 65 people in 1992. An article in the October 2017 issue of Stormwater describes these and other changes to the warning system in more detail.

As it turned out, 2017 was one of the worst hurricane seasons in recent memory; three Category 4 hurricanes made landfall in the US, including Harvey, dubbed the wettest tropical cyclone in US history. How many people died as a result of storm surge? Exactly none, the National Hurricane Center says, crediting the new warning system. Public education helped, including tips for the media and for emergency managers on how to communicate the danger. So did improved graphics showing exactly which areas were at risk and when they were most likely to flood.

As of now, though, the new warnings are in place only for the continental US; the Center is working to expand coverage to Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Hawaii. SW_bug_web

  • Andy Tilton.

    The intent and some results may have been good, but there is a lot of improvement that needs to be made in my opinion based on experience from Irma. One, the surge information came late to the game. If one had followed the warnings, the person would have travelled all over the state or needed to go to Illinois since all the closer motels would have been full. First the surge was going to affect the southeast coast. A day later it was going to affect the southwest coast of Florida. In Southwest Florida, it initially was going to be 9′ to 15′ above land surface. It was later reduced to 6′, but that was several hours after a ‘mandatory’ evacuation. The next problem was that by that time most gas stations were full and there was not a motel in the State that had a vacant room. One tank of gas was not going to get most vehicles out of state before running out of fuel so most said “if I am going to be stuck, it will be at home. There was not time to plan for taking care of pets, livestock, or people that had special needs that previously did not need to evacuate, but suddenly were in an evacuation zone. News media was ill prepared to deal with this information either and compounded the challenge.


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