National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said that science will improve to the point where forecasters can reliably issue forecasts showing where a hurricane will be a week ahead of time.
“We’re two to five years from a seven-day forecast,” Read told reporters while attending a South Carolina conference with representatives of other federal agencies to discuss hurricane forecasting and warning.
He noted the National Weather Service now issues regular daily weather forecasts a week out — but not yet for hurricanes.
“But no one makes decisions based on that kind of forecast that can kill them,” Read said. “There is plenty of time to recover from a bad decision to play golf on Saturday when it’s Monday; it’s not going to kill you. If you start moving nursing home patients at seven days (ahead) you could kill them.”
Read said the Hurricane Center, which now issues five-day forecasts on the giant storms, doesn’t want to issue a seven-day forecast until there is greater confidence in the predictions.
But, he said, better forecasts won’t help the public if they ignore them.
“The biggest challenge is to crack the denial. If you haven’t cracked the ‘it won’t happen to me thought process’ you can do everything else right and they are going to say it won’t happen to me and not do it,” he said. “If you can get past the denial, the rest of it is not as difficult as you think.”
He said that although Hurricane Irene tracked up the East Coast last August, causing $7 billion in damage and claiming 41 lives, people won’t remember it long.
“We will have about a five-year window when people are teachable from Irene and if nothing else happens. I used to think if you were hit once you were good for a generation,” he said.
But research has shown that after only five years people “remember it differently. They don’t remember it as badly as it was. It’s natural five years later you forget the things that got you in trouble the last time.”
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doesn’t release until May its prediction for the six-month Atlantic hurricane season that starts June 1, Read said that very early indications are that the season may be average – around 11 named storms – after last year’s busy season when there were 19.
But he said there is very little confidence in a forecast issued this far ahead of the season.
“My guys don’t think seasonal forecasts have any meaningfulness,” he added, saying the Hurricane Center is focused on warning people so they get out of harm’s way.
He noted that, 20 years ago, there was a relatively quiet hurricane season. But one of those storms that season in 1992, he said, was Hurricane Andrew that hit south Florida causing 26 deaths and an estimated $25 billion damage.
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