Hurricane forecasting has come a long way since the days of Nash Roberts or Mike Graham.
And this year, the National Hurricane Center has more improvements and refinements to its forecasting techniques.
This couldn’t come at a better time, since the coronavirus pandemic will pose new challenges in terms of sheltering and evacuating from our most vulnerable communities.
Local emergency preparedness officials say they will have to begin making evacuation decisions 10 hours earlier than usual, since the capacity for moving people will be curtailed by the worldwide health crisis.
That means that required evacuations could begin between 64 and 69 hours before tropical-storm-force winds — those greater than 34 mph — reach the coast. In the past, evacuations have been timed for 54 hours before that threshold is met.
One significant change is the addition of a 60-hour forecast point in hurricane and tropical storm outlooks. Each forecast will now include the position of the storm’s center, its expected intensity and the distance from the storm’s center for 50-knot and 34-knot winds at 60 hours.
Until now, that forecast information has been listed for 12, 24, and 36 hours, and then at 2, 3, 4 and 5 days.
Adding the forecast point halfway between the second and third days will provide emergency managers a better understanding of what storms might be doing during a period when evacuation decisions will be made.
Another important change is a new storm surge map that will outline the peak height of potential storm surge across large swaths of the East and Gulf Coasts, with the vulnerable area marked in red and with the water height listed.
The new map will be issued at the same time as a separate map showing storm surge watches and warnings.
Forecasters will continue to post maps that show the worst-case surge water heights at the local, street level. While those maps are valuable in showing the public how high the water might be at their home or business, the color coding was too difficult to use in regional and state-level discussions with emergency managers.
The new map also will quickly show emergency managers how the threat of flooding can occur well away from locations expected to see a hurricane’s highest winds.
In an era when it’s fashionable to criticize government bureaucracies, we should keep a kind thought for the National Hurricane Center as the 2020 storm season commences. Their work helps keep Louisianians alive and we will need them more than ever this year.