By CATHERINE KOZAK
It’s an annual ritual that most of us who live on the Outer Banks don’t pay much mind to: The start of hurricane season is June 1. Everyone is razor-focused on getting ready for the first big holiday weekend and the launch of the tourism season.
We all know the gig, and we take storms seriously.
But if experience has taught us anything, it’s to take the predictions of the upcoming hurricane season with a grain of salt, to say the least. On Thursday, NOAA weather forecasters predicted a 70 percent likelihood of 10 to 16 named storms, of which five to nine could become hurricanes. And of those hurricanes, one to four of them could be major – in excess of 110 mph.
Of course, this is as meaningful to the Outer Banks as saying it’s going to be hot somewhere in the Atlantic this summer. And the inevitable be-ready, be-prepared drumbeat from government agencies can sound Chicken Little-ish and nagging.
Yet . . . we live on a hurricane super-highway, and we need to know when to pay attention.
“I think many of us who live here, we tend to think about the storms from the past,” said Drew Pearson, Dare County Emergency Management Director. “I encourage people to look at the storm that’s coming. They need to be focused on the forecast, not the storms they’ve lived through in the past.”
Yes, it’s easy to sound cynical about the weather service and especially the Jim Cantore sightings with every tropical puff. But the truth is that Outer Banks residents follow the forecast obsessively in hurricane season, and it’s improved a lot over the years.
“The seasonal outlooks are great for reminding folks that it only takes one storm to make things bad for us in Eastern North Carolina,” said David Glenn, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service office in Morehead City. “But we’ve made some really big advances in the last couple of years as far as forecasting.”
One of the most significant new tools – fully operational for the first time last year – are storm surge warnings and watches, along with maps illustrating potential inundation. That allows residents to check the maps to see if they’re vulnerable to dangerous flooding.
People should pay more attention to storm surge, he said, than the Safir-Simpson scale (Cat. 1 to 5) used in hurricane forecasts.
“It’s like a generational change,” Glenn said. “A lot of times, people are very aware of the category of the storm, but all that tells you is the wind speed.”
Pearson, citing the slogan “run from the water, hide from the wind,” also emphasized that floodwater and wind-driven tide can be more deadly than high wind, especially on the Outer Banks.
“They need to be mindful of that,” he said. “It’s storm surge that kills people.”
A new emergency alert system, first used during last year’s power outage on Hatteras Island, is available for residents – or anyone else – to sign up, Pearson said. (It’s available at www.darenc.com/emergencyalerts.)
“That alert system is going to really help people to stay informed,” he said. “We can send targeted messages to specific areas.”
So far, Pearson said that 15,000 people have registered, most of them with out-of-area addresses. He added that he welcomes anyone, but he really encourages all Dare residents to sign up.
“We have no limits to how many people are the system,” Pearson said, adding it can be part of general hurricane preparation. “Now’s the time to get ready – not a few hours before a storm.”
Recent and ongoing upgrades to NOAA satellites have also vastly improved storm forecasting, Glenn said.
For example, he noted that the new GOES-East satellite – which provides a view of weather systems in the Western Hemisphere - was updating imagery every minute of a storm he was watching.
Overall, the new sophisticated satellite technology and instruments and upgraded weather models are providing more accurate hurricane track and intensity predications. One obvious change is that the infamous “Cone of Uncertainty” has gotten smaller.
“The forecasting errors will tend to get smaller,” Glenn said, “that’s why the cone shrinks.”
And people should not be fooled by the size or strength of a storm in accessing its threat. For example, he compared the impacts on the Outer Banks of Hurricane Irene in 2011 to Hurricane Arthur in 2014.
“Arthur was a much stronger system, but it had a much smaller [impact],” he said. “Communicating weather threats is a very difficult thing.”
Other changes this year:
- Graphics that illustrate the Arrival Time of Tropical-Storm-Force Winds, as well as estimates on the arrival of sustained winds, will be operational. They were posted on an experimental basis last year.
- National Hurricane Center Public Advisories will include forecast information up to 72 hours instead of the previous cut-off of 48 hours.
- Hurricane-force wind radii will now be forecast out to 48 hours rather than the previous 36 hours. These radii forecasts provide the predicted maximum extent of these winds in each quadrant of the storm.
While conversing about Outer Banks’ weather, Glenn couldn’t help lamenting the loss of Irene Nolan, the much-missed co-founder and editor of the Island Free Press. Nolan, who would speak to the weather service frequently during hurricane season, gained a reputation as a storm sage in her own right.
“I loved her because she was fair.... But she was always great about communication,“ Glenn said. “And she was a weather-weanie just like us.”