When lifting old regulations can save your life

HOUSTON/MIAMI - As today is the official start of the 2017 hurricane season for the Atlantic basin (even though we've already had Tropical Storm Arlene, back in April), I wanted to recognize the National Hurricane Center for seeing the light, and finally lifting a major, critical and once-crippling bureaucratic regulation which limited their ability to warn residents of hurricane force winds, storm surge and lashing rains, from ocean-born systems which either are not yet, or have dissipated from, a hurricane or tropical storm. For the first time ever, the NHC will be able to issue a tropical storm or hurricane warning for a storm expected to become a tropical cyclone before it does -- or continue tropical warnings for a time after it loses those tropical characteristics, but still packs a punch to produce damage consistent of a tropical system.

Here's the statement released today by the NHC in their first twice-daily Tropical Weather Outlook of the season. 

Beginning this season, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) will have
the option to issue advisories, watches, and warnings for
disturbances that are not yet a tropical cyclone, but which pose the
threat of bringing tropical storm or hurricane conditions to land
areas within 48 hours.  For these land-threatening "potential
tropical cyclones", NHC will issue the full suite of advisory and
watch/warning products that previously had been issued only for
tropical cyclones.  Potential tropical cyclones will share the
naming conventions currently in place for tropical depressions,
being numbered from a single list (e.g., "One", "Two", "Three",
etc.)

If it looks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck... well, it's a duck. Any kid can tell you that, which leads me to the most major NHC fail in recent history: bound by arbitrary rules, they dropped the ball for tens of millions of people when Hurricane Sandy in 2012 slammed the northeast US, bringing the worst storm to that area in recent memory. In an action that had us dumbfounded, just before slamming the coast, the NHC removed all hurricane warnings. That's because scientifically, the storm lost the technical characteristics which determine whether it's a tropical cyclone or not. While it still walked and quacked like a duck, it was considered, "post tropical." This thing was pumping gusts over 90mph and pushing a storm surge over 10 feet across most of the shoreline, yet the NHC walked away from it, passing the baton to local National Weather Service offices to issue high wind warnings (for gusts over 74mph) and coastal flood advisories (for storm surge.)

Unfortunately, because 'a hurricane' technically did not hit there, insurance questions arose, since countless policies had riders based on an official declaration of a tropical system before they came into effect. No storm means nobody could collect more than what the basic policy covered. Ultimately this system would trail only Hurricane Katrina in total monetary damages. ($50+ billion!) It killed 71 people in the US with its storm surge, flooding and wind effects. As the only broadcast meteorologist in the country to fly into Hurricane Sandy (with NOAA's Hurricane Hunters, aboard their P-3 Orion) I can tell you with authority that Sandy was indeed the real deal, and that the flight crew absolutely relayed that message to the National Hurricane Center. 

Thankfully, TV media was there to warn viewers that, "regardless of Sandy's 'official' status, it's still as big and bad as ever". This prompted many to evacuate the coast and baton down the hatches, saving their lives and hopefully staving off worse damage, when perhaps they otherwise might have not. It's impossible to say if anyone died as a direct result of the hurricane warnings being dropped.

Having a system of strict definitions is the best solution to avoid subjectivity in science. But when lives are at stake and billions of dollars are in limbo, adapting is the key to achieving their National Weather Service mission statement: "To Protect Life and Property." Now, as is consistent with a large organization, it took them a whopping four hurricane seasons since Sandy to change their warnings policy, but it's finally operational today. We can all take delight in knowing we're better off this year than last.

-Brooks
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© 2017 KHOU-TV


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