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Accurate forecasts alone aren't enough to prevent deaths from hurricanes and storms

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Thursday marks the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season. That's likely causing some anxiety in southwest Florida, where communities are still rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Ian in September. More than 150 people died, and it was the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history. This year, the National Hurricane Center is rolling out new tools to alert the public of the risks posed by storms. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, accurate forecasts alone are not enough to prevent deaths from hurricanes and tropical storms.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The National Hurricane Center's deputy director, Jamie Rhome, calls it the story about Hurricane Ian that never got told. It's that despite the high death toll and the level of destruction, the center's meteorologists did a good job forecasting the hurricane's track, intensity and the areas at risk from storm surge. Rhome recalls the advisory issued five days before Ian made landfall.

JAMIE RHOME: A major hurricane is going to move in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and likely impact the west coast of Florida.

ALLEN: Rhome says the early warnings likely saved numerous lives. Hurricane forecasts have greatly improved over the last decade, largely because of better data from satellites, buoys and aircraft, along with more powerful computers and sophisticated modeling. Even so, in Hurricane Ian, many people on the coast underestimated the threat of storm surge.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

ALLEN: In a presentation at a recent hurricane conference, Rhome played video of a cottage on Fort Myers Beach as it's engulfed by a rapidly rising storm surge. The house is swept off its foundation and eventually washed away in the 15-foot flood. Amazingly, people who were in the house survived. Forty-one people are known to have died in Ian's storm surge. But despite evacuation orders, many decided to stay in their homes. One reason, Rhome believes, is that too often, people focus on the storm's wind speed, its category number on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

RHOME: The primary reason we evacuate in this country is because of storm surge, yet we are absolutely enamored, as a country, with the Saffir-Simpson scale. It is a wind scale. You've got to stop focusing on the wrong things.

ALLEN: The deaths in Ian were the most seen in Florida from a storm since the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. Rhome says that's because Ian hit a densely populated area. More than 150,000 people were at risk from storm surge, he says, so the death toll could have been much higher. Director of the National Hurricane Center Mike Brennan says although storm surge has the greatest potential to cause the most deaths in a single day, in recent years, more deaths have been caused by freshwater flooding, sometimes far inland.

MIKE BRENNAN: It can happen anywhere. It's almost entirely unrelated to how strong a storm is. So a tropical depression, the remnants of a system, if they sit over an area long enough, can produce deadly freshwater flooding.

ALLEN: To better communicate the risk from flooding, the National Hurricane Center has made improvements to its storm surge models. This year, it's also expanding its tropical weather outlooks from five to seven days. Florida State University meteorologist Allison Wing says the enhanced outlook should give people more time to get their hurricane plans in place.

ALLISON WING: It gives you just a kind of - a little bit more lead time in thinking about, all right, within the next week, are we expecting anything to happen?

ALLEN: A major factor meteorologists are watching closely this year is the likely development in the Pacific of a strong El Nino climate pattern. That has global implications, including higher than normal temperatures worldwide. Typically, El Ninos tend to suppress the development of hurricanes in the Atlantic. But this year, Colorado State University forecaster Phil Klotzbach is expecting hurricane activity to be just slightly below normal. The reason?

PHIL KLOTZBACH: The Atlantic right now is extremely warm, much warmer than normal for this time of year. And so normally when the Atlantic is warm, that tends to favor above-normal activity.

ALLEN: As meteorologists and emergency managers like to say, it only takes just one. Damaging hurricanes have made landfall even in relatively quiet El Nino years. Looking back at the loss of life in Hurricane Ian, National Hurricane Center director Mike Brennan says his biggest worry is complacency.

BRENNAN: You know, we lost a lot of people in Katrina in 2005 because they didn't think it would be worse than Camille was. We have a tremendous number of people moving around in this country. You look at Florida, you look at other coastal states - people moving here from non-hurricane prone areas, they don't even know what their risk is.

ALLEN: Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.