Hurricane season is here, and so is a new arsenal of warnings

Billy Quinn sits on his bike and a concrete slab where his trailer once stood in Islamorada at the Seabreeze trailer park along the Overseas Highway after Hurricane Irma slammed the Keys in September.
Billy Quinn sits on his bike and a concrete slab where his trailer once stood in Islamorada at the Seabreeze trailer park along the Overseas Highway after Hurricane Irma slammed the Keys in September.

When hurricane season officially gets underway Friday, a week after Alberto's abrupt early start, forecasters will be ready with a batch of tools better able to predict and communicate lethal winds, pounding rain and other hazards.

Maps modeled on Google driving directions, minus the tips on traffic and scenery, will provide estimates for the earliest or most likely arrival time for winds, something early birds and procrastinators alike can embrace. More emphasis will be placed on flooding, a hurricane's deadliest hazard, with maps inserted in advisories for the first time that let users zoom in and out to get a better idea of local threats. And advisories will now be issued once storms make landfall and winds die down but the system continues to dump heavy rain.

Social media also continues to play a bigger role at the sometimes stodgy National Hurricane Center, which just two years ago abandoned its all caps bulletins left from the days of the Teletype.

"We’re not going to be shocking or dramatic on our social media posts. We want to be calm, cool and collected," hurricane specialist Robbie Berg, who oversees the NHC's Inside the Eye blog, said in summing up the overall approach. "I know a lot of people in the public don’t think that’s very sexy. But that’s just the way it’s going to be. "

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Following the brutal 2017 hurricane season, which beat 2005 as the costliest season on record with an estimated $265 billion in damages, forecasters say they got a good idea of where gaps in warnings occurred.

"It was a big humbling experience," said Amy Godsey, Florida's state meteorologist with the Division of Emergency Management.

The season churned out 10 hurricanes in a row, produced double the average for major hurricanes, and became the seventh most active season on record. It was also the first time in modern history that forecasters had to juggle hurricane warnings for three different storms — Katia, Irma and Jose — at the same time.

Showing the agency's value in the face of potentially more intense hurricanes on a warming planet could also make budget cuts politically distasteful. The Trump administration signed off on a sweeping weather forecasting improvement act last year, but has targeted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the hurricane center, for steep cuts.

This year, the center will roll out earlier advisories on storms that haven't yet formed but threaten land in 48 hours or less after experimenting with them last year. The first time they were used, the warnings gave the public and emergency managers nearly a day's advance warning for Tropical Storm Cindy, which went on to make landfall in Louisiana. Of the seven potential storms forecasters tracked last year, six went on to become tropical storms or hurricanes.

"We may be a victim of our success because I've heard suggestions that we should issue these advisories even earlier," said Dan Brown, a senior hurricane specialist in charge of warning coordination.

For the most part, forecasters kept up with last season's frantic pace, setting a new record low for forecast errors. Because of that, this season's cone of uncertainty, which is based on the five-year average for accuracy, will shrink even more, raising concerns among forecasters that the cone will continue to be misunderstood as depicting specific hazards rather than risk. There's been some talk of removing the cone, Berg said, but it remains the most viewed graphic; after this past season, Berg looked back at what graphics were viewed by the public, and the cone still placed first by a wide margin.

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"We have to do it methodically and carefully and with social science," he said. "We can't just make a change because we feel it's best for everybody."

And by adding more ways of conveying risk, they hope to persuade the public to consider warnings more broadly.

"We need to get away from the deterministic forecast and think of it as a risk framework," he said. "We may not nail the forecast, but we can give you a reasonable assumption of ... what you might expect from the storm."

Harvey, which last year set a new U.S. record for rainfall with 60.58 inches in Texas, also prompted an upgrade in interactive rain forecast maps. However, modeling has still not advanced enough to be able to combine the flooding effects of storm surge and rainfall flooding, so forecasters will continue to issue different maps.

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Following Irma's mass evacuation on the heels of Harvey last year, Godsey said Florida emergency managers also plan on using surge maps more surgically in telling people when to leave their homes, and remind them that shelters should be a last resort.

"Emotions played a lot in Irma," she said. "We've got all these pretty graphics. But are we effectively using them?"

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich