HOUSTON - Will people believe future hurricane warnings? That's the question I find myself asking as people criticized what were perceived as, "bad weather forecasts" with the infamous Hurricane Matthew as it threatened Florida. In order to answer that question, we must explore why 2016 was different.
This season was considered the 2nd longest in recorded history. The longest was 1951. This season started in January, with Hurricane Alex. (Yes, WAY out of season!) There are other stats and superlatives to share about this season (such as, "the farthest north" or, "farthest south" or, "longest-duration" or, "the greatest accumulated cyclone energy expended", et cetera, ad nauseam), but we are humans, so I want to explore the human toll instead of storm stats ... and explore how humans process news of warnings and how bad forecasts may influence their future evacuation decisions.
Hurricane Matthew was a monster. It killed a lot of people. It was not a, "beautiful storm". It was a human tragedy in a long line of human suffering in the place that it struck: Haiti. It grew from nothing to a Cat 5 overnight. (This explosive and unpredictable strengthening is why we obsess over any little, "blob" in the tropics, especially if it's in our part of the world.) Considering it takes 36hrs to evacuate most coastal places in the US, systems like Matthew are always devastating when they hit populated areas -- especially in developing nations with less infrastructure to support evacuees. Hurricane Matthew killed an estimated one thousand people in Haiti. If it had hit south Florida with the same wrath, 100s could have been killed easily.
Matthew proceeded to track to Florida's east coast and with dire warnings in place, largely left the Sunshine State unscathed. By chance only, the heart of its worst winds wobbled JUST offshore (20-50 miles), sparing billions and billions of dollars of beach front property and lives. In the geographic scale of hurricanes which can span over 1,500 miles, a deviation of 20-50 miles is tiny. However, for people on the ground it seemed like just another bad forecast and another expensive, unnecessary evacuation.
On the flip side, many people in coastal Georgia and especially North Carolina, felt weather warnings were nowhere to be found when it came to their extensive tree and limb falls and severe, historic flooding. More bad forecasts... Or, the perception of bad forecasts. (Actually the rainfall and flooding forecasts were spot on!)
A flood disaster in N.C.: Satellite photos before and after Hurricane Matthew - The Washington Post https://t.co/X1ocYudadu— sher stout (@srstout) October 25, 2016
So what's it like to have a land-falling major hurricane in the US without warning? One hit Galveston in 1900, killing up to 10,000 people in the deadliest natural disaster in our nation's history. Back then, there were no reliable forecasts and no one saw it coming.
Unfortunately, I believe history will repeat itself (as far as unnecessary loss of life), because when the next 'Matthew' comes, they may just choose to stay. People make their own decisions. Hopefully people are sound of mind and make the right decision next time and evacuate when instructed.. but I fear many will not. I worry that damage from how the public perceived this hurricane season's forecasts will last longer than anything a hurricanes winds can knock down.
Anyway, hurricane season 2016 is over and we can rest easy. While much of the US made it through unscathed from any catastrophic damage (yes, Hermine hit FL's panhandle), forecasters took an incredible lashing from their collective winds.
Now... let's track some winter storms!