“Most of us think of tropical storms and hurricanes as big wind machines and they are but they’re more than that,’’ Knabb said. “We can’t focus solely on that and forget about the water hazards.’’
It was infamous Sandy that drove home the frightening risks of surge, pushing the ocean across New Jersey beach towns, into the streets and subways of Manhattan and up rivers along much of the Northeast coast. Surge was responsible for most of the 72 deaths and $70-plus billion in damages, Knabb said.
In the wake of the devastating storm, forecasters and emergency managers will be stepping up the focus on the deadliest of hurricane threats, urging residents in risk area to come up with an evacuation plan and pack up if the call comes.
“The one thing we see pretty consistently in all of the storms is the tendency of people to underestimate the damage potential of storm surge,’’ said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management and former director of Florida’s Emergency Management Division.
Earlier this month, Miami-Dade County unveiled new evacuation maps developed with more accurate surveys and more sophisticated computer models that revealed vast new swaths potentially at risk from storm surge, putting nearly three-quarters of the population in potential hurricane zones. The NHC is also working on new, easier-to-understand surge projection maps that forecasters hope to roll out by 2015.
Still, even in Florida, the most storm-prone state in the nation, emergency managers and forecasters worry about the short memory of the public. It’s been seven seasons since the last hurricane struck the state — Wilma, which tore a gash across the state from Naples to Melbourne in October 2005. But it was the last in a string of eight that shredded the state in 2004 and 2005.
Knabb stressed that there is no way for scientists or forecasters to say if Florida is due or when the quiet streak will end. Except, it will end sometime, he said.
“We know that hurricanes, and major hurricanes, will come back to Florida,’’ he said. “It’s not a matter of if but when. We have been fortunate but preparing like we will be hit is the right thing to do.’’