Miami-Dade County

Hurricane season opens with a warning to Florida to be wary

Michelle Smith, 40, wipes her eyes as she got emotional while standing in front of her father Richard Smith's destroyed mobile home at Port Charlotte Village mobile home park in this Aug. 14, 2004 file photo. After nine seasons without a major hurricane striking the U.S., feds fear public will become complacent.
Michelle Smith, 40, wipes her eyes as she got emotional while standing in front of her father Richard Smith's destroyed mobile home at Port Charlotte Village mobile home park in this Aug. 14, 2004 file photo. After nine seasons without a major hurricane striking the U.S., feds fear public will become complacent. MIAMI HERALD FILE, 2004

Emergency managers and hurricane forecasters marked the opening of the Atlantic season Monday with their traditional warning to the public: beware complacency.

Despite nine seasons without a major storm striking the U.S. and another slow season forecast for 2015, Federal Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate stressed that it only takes a single storm to unleash havoc.

“You make your luck by being prepared,” said Fugate, who was joined by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb and Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon at the National Hurricane Center at Florida International University.

This season, forecasters have predicted that six to 13 named storms will form. Of those, three to six may become hurricanes and up to two could become major storms with winds exceeding 110 mph. Forecasters say an El Niño weather pattern forming in the Pacific is expected to keep hurricanes from forming during the season’s peak months between August and October. The season ends Nov. 30.

Forecasters this year will highlight the threat from storm surge, which did so much damage to the Northeast during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The center will be using storm surge maps for the first full season that will allow residents to plug in their location to get a forecast. Modelers also tried to simplify the forecast by giving the water depth from ground level, not mean sea level.

“So if it’s between three and six feet, you know it’s going to cover the head of a small child and, in my case, a small adult,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Storm surge actually causes more deaths than wind, officials said. And of Florida’s 67 counties, 40 could be hit by flooding from a hurricane, Koon said.

“You can’t hide from storm surge. You have to evacuate,” Fugate added.

In recent years, forecasters have greatly improved tracking maps, narrowing projections to allow emergency managers to be far more precise in evacuations. But forecasters still wrestle with predicting intensity, a problem not improved by a $10 million cut in funding by Congress.

“Lives literally hang in the balance,” Wasserman Schultz said, and “that can be directly tied to a drop in funding. That is simply unacceptable.”

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