Don’t forget: Hurricane season is just getting started for South Florida

In 2005, residents in the Florida Keys were ordered to evacuate in advance of Tropical Storm Rita, which grew into a major storm with 180 mph winds before weakening to a Category 3 storm when it made landfall between Texas and Louisiana just three weeks after Katrina hit New Orleans.
In 2005, residents in the Florida Keys were ordered to evacuate in advance of Tropical Storm Rita, which grew into a major storm with 180 mph winds before weakening to a Category 3 storm when it made landfall between Texas and Louisiana just three weeks after Katrina hit New Orleans. AFP

If Florida Power & Light calls with a warning about being in the crosshairs of a hurricane, don’t hang up. It won’t be a joke.

The utility, along with forecasters worried about hurricane complacency after nearly 10 years without a major storm striking South Florida, are amping up efforts to warn residents with new and better tools. Among them: robo calls and improved forecast modeling that is 10 to 15 percent more accurate than just three years ago.

And that could come in handy because, according to a new survey, the public may not be listening.

As the hurricane season swings into its busiest months, Mason-Dixon Polling & Research announced this week that 60 percent of Florida residents polled feel a hurricane will likely not make landfall during the 2015 season. If ordered to evacuate in advance of a Category 1 storm, only 62 percent said they would leave.

For forecasters and emergency managers increasingly emphasizing the danger of flooding from even a weak storm, the poll was a disappointing response to their warnings.

"It does not take a major hurricane (Category 3 or stronger) to have a major impact. Just look at Isaac and Sandy,” said National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb. “We work closely with emergency managers, and they don't make those evacuation decisions lightly."

This season, forecasters have predicted below average activity, with just six to 11 named storms, three to six hurricanes and up to two major storms. That’s largely due to an intense El Niño warming Pacific waters and driving winds that can keep hurricanes from forming. So far this year, the Atlantic has churned up just three tropical storms.

Even so, forecasters point out that some of the Atlantic’s worst hurricanes, including Andrew in 1992, occurred in slow years. Historically, the largest number of storms form between mid August and late October. The 10 costliest and nearly all the deadliest made landfall on the back half of the season. Just this week, a disturbance popped up suddenly off the coast of Georgia, although it was expected to stay offshore and not gain strength as it moves northeast. Forecasters are also keeping an eye on a system just off the Cape Verde Islands, where big storms typically start.

In the absence of hurricanes, researchers have been working hard to improve flaws revealed by Katrina and Sandy, when heavy flooding in New Orleans and along the East Coast led to more than 1,600 deaths and the two costliest storms in U.S. history. With storm surge becoming a major concern, the hurricane center launched online maps this year that let users see projected flooding from the ground up when a hurricane — and in some cases a tropical storm — is approaching. By 2017, the National Hurricane Center plans to issue storm surge warnings similar to tropical storm and hurricane warnings.

“We need to be connecting with people directly,” Knabb said this week during a briefing that previewed new tools that now allow forecasters to issue warnings two days earlier.

FPL has also beefed up its system and projected response times after fully automating meters for all 4.8 million customers and inspecting 1.2 million utility poles, said communications chief Robert Gould. The utility, he said, is particularly concerned that 40 percent of its customers are new since the busy 2005 season, suggesting they’ve never experienced a hurricane.

“It’s this complacency thing that has got us concerned,” he said.

Now, when a storm hits, crews with iPads will be able to readily locate outages. Automation also means the company’s Palm Beach County headquarters will have a better view of the entire grid. The utility also plans to forecast potential outages before a storm, so customers have a better idea of what’s in store.

“It does bring a big dose of reality to the equation when you have those numbers,” Gould said.

Robo calls to alert customers who might not be paying attention are also being used this season. The calls will go out about 48 hours in advance of a storm to warn customers in areas most likely to expect outages and will vary depending on the severity of the storm, said spokesman Bryan Garner. The utility also has a power tracker that for the first time lets customers look at outages county by county.

Forecasters are also getting another big tool in their toolbox: the GOES-R constellation of satellites. Expected to launch next year, the system will include an upgrade in satellite imaging by replacing the existing imager, about the size of a dorm room fridge, with one more than twice as big that allows scientists to see temperatures, moisture and evening lightning.

“It will improve every product we have because of the higher resolution,” said GOES-R senior scientist Steve Goodman.

The satellites will also have better batteries so black-outs, which plagued forecasters during Katrina because the storm struck during “eclipse season,” will no longer occur, he said.

NOAA’s forecasts are also increasingly more accurate, to a point. While forecast tracks are up to 15 percent better, forecasting a storm’s intensity remains untested because advances have occurred at a time when the strongest, most difficult storms to predict have not formed. Ultimately, researchers hope to improve accuracy by 20 percent over five years and 50 percent in 10 years, said Robert Atlas, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. The center is also expanding its modeling to be able to track multiple hurricanes across the globe, to gain a better understanding of how they interact.

“Over the last decade, not just because of Katrina but because of a lot of storms, we have changed the game in how we communicate the primary danger,” Knabb said.

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