NHC Director: Preparedness Paramount

With less than two months until hurricane season begins, officials are urging the public to prepare now for what may be another active season.

Bill Read, Director of the National Hurricane Center, recently spoke to meteorology majors at Penn State University. His lecture, titled ’40 Years of Chasing ‘Canes’, not only covered his background in the field of meteorology, but also gave insight into his job as lead hurricane tracker. I was fortunate enough to not only listen to the lecture, but also speak to him personally during other portions of his visit to the University.

Read’s career began in 1971, when he was a Hurricane Hunter for the US Navy. The first hurricane he actually flew into was Agnes in 1972, a storm that brought drenching rains to much of the East Coast.

From the late ’70s through the ’80s he worked in various National Weather Service offices around Texas, before finally working in NWS Headquarters from 1989 to 1991. During that span he worked on the agency’s modernization, an undertaking which he said he didn’t think would happen in today’s charged political climate.

After working closely with the NHC through storms including Katrina, he was appointed Director of the National Hurricane Center in 2008. In his current position, he not only oversees the issuance of all hurricane products for the United States, but he also oversees a committee of Caribbean nations that meets once a year to go over storm coordination plans. This is the same group that decides what storm names are retired after a season. Read also spends much of the spring traveling around the US and Central America promoting hurricane preparedness. In fact, the hurricane preparedness tour will be visiting Cape Cod early next month (more).

That preparedness is something the Director takes very seriously. While he proudly says forecast track errors have decreased 60% since 1990 due to better performing models, he warns that higher population and higher property values near the coastline will likely result in more costly storms in the future. So, even though fatalities are trending down because the forecasts are better, giving citizens more time to evacuate if needed, the average cost of storms continues to increase. As he sarcastically put it, “people fill their houses with lots of expensive crap”.

Plus, he says, most people underestimate the risk to their property. He strongly advises people to know where they live in relation to flood plains, and know the maximum wind speed their home was built to withstand. Once people are armed with that knowledge, a proper disaster plan can be developed and implemented if a storm nears. He specifically cited Earl, a hurricane which raced up the east coast on Labor Day weekend in 2010. He says the lack of evacuations on Cape Cod was a gamble that worked out this time, but may not in the future. Hence, his advocacy for preparedness well before a storm nears.

While track forecasting has increased significantly in recent years, very little progress has been made in intensity forecasts in some 20 years. Models, and thus forecasters, also continue to struggle with rapid changes in intensity. Again, he cited that as a reason why coastal residents always need to be prepared for a storm; a seemingly benign low may rapidly intensify into a hurricane in a matter of hours, leaving no time for last minute preparations.

Read says the official NOAA hurricane forecast for 2011 is a closely held secret until its release in May, but lamented that seasonal forecasts are used wrong anyway. Seasonal forecasts should not be used as a means to gauge preparedness, he says. An active forecast may result in a season where several storms impact land, or just as easily a season where most miss out to sea. Instead, he advises residents to prepare the same way each and every year- it only takes one storm to leave its mark.

2010 was a good example of this. While it was the third most active season, hardly any tropical systems impacted the United States. He attributes the curvature of most storms out to sea to a large 500mb trough located over the east. In terms of model performance, Read noted the EMXI model performed best for the 3rd year in a row, while the UKMET and NOGAPS performed the worst.

The bottom line is that coastal residents of Massachusetts should know the risk to their individual property, and have a plan in place before hurricane season begins on June 1. We’ve seen major hurricanes before, and we’ll no doubt see more in the future.

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