Warning system shows promise

Published 10:32 am Thursday, April 11, 2013

The National Weather Service deserves commendation for developing a system that will warn coastal North Carolina residents about impending storm surge associated with hurricanes, tropical storms and similar weather events.

Although that system is being refined — with input from area emergency-services personnel, media representatives and first-responders — it is expected to be in place by the 2015 hurricane season. The hurricane season runs from June through November of each year.

During a hurricane, storm surge is usually the greatest threat to life and property, according to the National Weather Service, which is concerned that despite increasingly accurate storm forecasting, many coastal residents do not take protective measures for storm surge.
During the past 18 months, NWS developed several prototype storm-surge maps that indicated where and how deep storm surge is expected to be in a given area during a hurricane. After some refining, NWS is preparing to use these maps for communities vulnerable to hurricanes.
NWS is seeking input on these maps from the focus groups.

The problem with storm surge, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials, is many people don’t know about storm surge, or if they do know about it, don’t fully understand it. Storm surge can be defined as a significant risk of life-threatening flooding from rapidly rising water moving inland. Under the proposed system, a watch would be issued 48 hours before the expected arrival of a hurricane, with a warning issued 36 hours before the expected arrival of a hurricane.

Storm surge is not a wall of water, like a tsunami, headed toward the coast or inland waters. Storm surge may be as little as three feet, but three feet of water in low-lying areas may mean some residents will have water invading their homes, with water rising at various speeds depending on location and other factors such as wind speed and a home’s elevation off the ground.

“Several years, the hurricane center became quite interested in trying to figure out how to do a better job of doing storm-surge forecasting, but also storm-surge communication,” said Betty Morrow, one of the NOAA officials, at a meeting in Washington where NOAA sought input on the system. “We started doing surveys to see if people understood storm surge. We found, in general, they do not.”

John Pack, Beaufort County’s emergency-services director and who attended the forum, said many Aurora-area residents learned a lesson about storm surge when Hurricane Irene came up the North Carolina coast last year. Pack noted that Hurricane Irene was a category 1 storm with minimal hurricane-strength winds, but its associated storm surge caused major problems in the Aurora area and other places in eastern North Carolina.

We recall the magnitude of those problems.

These new maps and tools will prove invaluable when it comes to warning coastal residents and helping them and emergency-response personnel prepare for an approaching hurricane and react properly when a hurricane strikes.

It’s too bad those maps and tools won’t be available for this year’s hurricane season, but at least they will help save lives and property when they can be used.