Widespread hurricane warnings can breed complacency

As Hurricane Earl rolled toward the Gulf Coast in 1998, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center posted warnings that stretched from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana -- nearly 900 miles, over two days, on alert.

But Earl's hurricane-force winds affected 211 miles total, leaving a 685-mile span of coastline untouched by the strongest winds. That's the distance between Miami and Atlanta.

A year later during Hurricane Irene, warnings covered 989 miles but only 440 were hit. Last year during Hurricane Charley, nearly 1,400 miles were warned. Miles struck: 197.

In all, hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes, shuttered their businesses and prepared for the worst.

But the alerts were false alarms.

For years, forecasters at the Hurricane Center have posted widespread warnings to cover their uncertainties, triggering multimillion-dollar evacuations and the mass closings of schools, companies and governments.

In nearly half of the 29 hurricanes that struck the United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, The Herald found, three-quarters of the warning areas per storm were ultimately left untouched by hurricane winds.

The overwarnings have troubled Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield, who said his chief concern is trying to save lives.

''If we had better forecasts, we could make that warning area as small as possible, but we know we have uncertainty,'' Mayfield acknowledged. ''How can anyone expect us to reduce the size of warning areas when we don't have more accurate forecasts and good enough [weather] observations to see what's going on?''

Since Andrew, breakdowns in weather-observing equipment have regularly handicapped forecasters: Hurricane hunter planes were grounded, buoys were left broken, weather balloons weren't launched in key regions in the Caribbean. Advances in the science, meanwhile, have been slowed by chronic underfunding.

Another obstacle: Some storms have approached the coast on an oblique or parallel course, raising the risk of a strike over a large area and creating more guesswork.

While track forecasts have improved in recent years and warning areas on average have slimmed down, the Hurricane Center is still alerting sprawling areas of coastline -- regions that ultimately never get hit.

As Hurricane Rita charged toward Texas last month, forecasters posted warnings that spanned 715 miles, but only 120 were struck, records show. During Hurricane Dennis in July, 584 miles were warned; 68 were hit.

The problem frustrated former Hurricane Center Director Jerry Jarrell, who believes in the ''cry wolf'' syndrome -- meaning communities always in the so-called danger zone could eventually grow numb and complacent.

''We're probably warning three times an area that actually gets it,'' said Jarrell, director from 1997 to 2000. 'The next time, people are going to say, 'Hurricanes aren't so bad.' ''


Evacuation expert Jay Baker, a Florida State University geography professor, has surveyed thousands of people after hurricanes and said people still take warnings seriously, despite prior false alarms. But he said he worries that repeated warnings without strikes could ultimately minimize fears.

''There's clearly a point of diminishing returns,'' he said. ''If you [overwarn and evacuate] too often in the same place, you'll get to a point where some people won't leave the next time.''

False alarms can have the opposite result, too: chaotic evacuations.

In the days before Hurricane Rita last month, hundreds of thousands of people fled Houston; highways were so jammed, motorists ran out of gas.

Two dozen people evacuated from a nursing home died when their bus caught fire. It had happened before: Four frail evacuees died in the days before Hurricane Ivan in 2004 when they were taken from their threatened southern Louisiana homes; several elderly people died in South Florida while being evacuated before Hurricane Andrew.

Ultimately, Rita only brushed Houston with tropical-storm force winds.

''Overwarning can actually lead to a less efficient response,'' said Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado political scientist who has studied the issue.

There is a heavy financial toll, too, paid every time communities are overwarned. Experts who have studied emergency evacuations estimate it costs roughly $1 million to evacuate a single mile of coastline.

During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, more than two million people evacuated between Miami and Plymouth, Mass. -- the largest peacetime evacuation in U.S. history. Evacuation costs, estimated at $2 billion, for the first time actually came close to rivaling the damage inflicted by the killer storm.

Businesses pay a price, too.

CSX Corp. must park trains and tie down crossing arms along potentially hundreds of miles of track. American Airlines has to secure equipment, redirect passengers, close down the terminal and potentially move 30 planes from Miami alone. Carnival Cruise Lines must redirect ships or return them to port.

At least six major companies contacted by The Herald, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, are now paying independent meteorologists for hurricane predictions, saying the forecasts are far more focused.

Independent meteorologists rely on the same weather-observing equipment and data as the Hurricane Center, but at private companies, meteorologists say they carefully weigh the probability of a storm striking in the warning area against the costs of closing businesses.

As Hurricane Charley bore down on Florida in 2004, Blue Cross and Blue Shield's Risk Management Director John Phelps had to decide whether to recommend closing the company's Jacksonville offices, which would have cost $180,000 in lost labor -- every hour. At the same time, the safety of roughly 6,500 employees was at stake.

The private weather service WeatherData, in Wichita, Kan., told Phelps that Hurricane Charley's strongest winds would not strike Jacksonville, even though the Hurricane Center had put Northeast Florida under a warning.

''Had we not had the WeatherData forecast,'' Phelps said, ''we would have closed.''

Small businesses, however, often don't have the means to hire private forecasters. Key West bed-and-breakfast owner Scott Fuhriman said the warnings cost him money during Hurricane Erin in 1995.

On a sunny day in August, Fuhriman stood on the porch of his 10-room Lightbourn Inn and watched his customers flee the island.

He calculated his loss: $100 per room, per night. And it was the slowest month of the year.

In all, 1,240 miles, including the Keys, were warned. But the storm ultimately hit north in Vero Beach, then cut across the state and struck Pensacola. In the end, just one-tenth of the warning area was hit by hurricane-force winds.

In Key West, thousands fled.

There was barely a drop of rain.


In 1998, the Department of Commerce Inspector General estimated that even a 10 percent reduction in warning size could save the public at least $20 million per storm, and urged the Hurricane Center to take on the issue.

Assigned to do the study: Meteorologist Mark DeMaria.

DeMaria found that the Hurricane Center overwarned 574 miles of coastline on average in the 1990s. That was far higher than in the 1960s, when 311 miles were overwarned.

A new review between 2000 and 2005 shows the number has dropped to 318, just below what it was in the 1980s. At the same time, the study found, the Hurricane Center has been issuing warnings almost a half day earlier, mainly to give congested communities along the coast more time to evacuate.

But the storms in the last five years were smaller overall than in the previous four decades, with the winds affecting fewer miles of coastline. DeMaria said that could have contributed to the smaller warnings.

Pielke and others also say averages in this case can be misleading, and storms should be studied individually.

''It's very hard to come to any meaningful conclusions on averages,'' Pielke said. ''You have to go storm by storm.''

The Herald examined every hurricane that struck the United States since 1992, and found significant overwarning during one-third of the dozen storms in the last two years alone -- Rita and Dennis this year, and Frances and Charley in 2004.

DeMaria said there have been improvements, but ''the warnings are still big.''

Hurricane Charley was among the most dramatic cases, with almost 1,200 miles overwarned even though the storm was smaller than most.


Hurricane Center director Mayfield said the warnings were justified, and that size isn't the only consideration.

For example, hurricanes that move parallel to a coast, or at an oblique angle like Charley, can easily strike anywhere within a large region. That's what happened during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, as well. Warnings can also be extensive if a hurricane is expected to hit two coasts.

But The Herald found that during Charley, the government's turboprop hurricane hunter planes were not flown, three weather-observing stations in Florida were malfunctioning and weather balloon readings were not taken along much of the storm's path in the Caribbean.

During Floyd, a high number of dropwindsondes failed after the devices were released from hurricane hunter planes, forcing forecasters to estimate wind speeds.

Those are the kinds of failures that create uncertainties, prodding forecasters to ''warn more coastline than normal,'' said retired Air Force Col. Floyd Hauth, a meteorologist who has studied the National Weather Service for Congress.

''When [forecasters] are missing chunks of data that they routinely depend on,'' he said, ''there's going to be low confidence in the forecasts.''


Some independent meteorologists and researchers fear that even with the best equipment, political pressure will prompt the Hurricane Center to continue to post sweeping warnings.

The Hurricane Center for years has faced scrutiny from emergency managers and politicians, who have at times demanded watches and warnings that forecasters believed were unnecessary, including in Florida during Hurricane Bertha in 1996. In the end, the storm hit North Carolina.

Said Mayfield: ''I've been cussed out by people who are not happy with the warnings.''

But Mayfield said that pressure has eased up in recent years.

The uncertainty, however, persists.

''These are the big surprises at the present time, disappointments, a lack of confidence in the forecasts,'' said former Hurricane Center Director Robert Simpson. ''Some forecasters overreact to take care of that. They overwarn.

''They're not going to take a chance and be wrong.''

Herald Database Editor Jason Grotto contributed to this report.