New National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham kicked off the start of the season Friday with an old message: Be prepared.
But this year there's a new dilemma. Rather than combating hurricane amnesia after a decade without a strike by a major hurricane, he faces a public gripped by heightened anxiety following a grueling hurricane season that could still become one of the deadliest on record if deaths in Puerto Rico match a recent study. Near back-to-back landfalls from Harvey, Irma and Maria made 2017 the costliest season on record, and, with 10 hurricanes in a row, the seventh busiest.
"It was a long time since we had a season like that. But here’s what we gotta remember," Graham said. "If there’s one storm on earth and we get those impacts here in Florida, then it’s a busy season so it doesn’t change preparedness."
This season is so far not expected to be as frenzied as last year, with 10 to 16 named storms predicted last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one to four major hurricanes. But that could change if cooler than normal Atlantic waters continue to heat up.
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Graham, who formerly ran the National Weather Service office for New Orleans and Baton Rouge, also takes charge of the 53-year-old center amid a wave of surging science and bigger computers that have allowed it to make better predictions on storm surge and flooding. Last year, the center set a new record for track forecasts, shrinking the forecast cone that relies on past accuracy to predict the possible paths of storms. The center is also expanding its messaging with new graphics jazzed up with input from behavioral science.
"We have to start looking at social science, behavioral science to see what other tools do we need to have in the future to communicate the impacts. How do you communicate Irma expanding the wind field on the west coast of Florida giving Jacksonville more wind, more storm surge? Those little teeny wiggles matter. That’s a challenge," he said.
"The science could be perfect, but if it’s not understood, the loop is broken."