Better coastal flooding warnings in works, officials say

Effects of storm flooding remain underappreciated by residents

The National Hurricane Center is working on a way to better communicate the extent of possible coastal flooding for areas in the path of storms, the center’s director, Rick Knabb, said Tuesday.

Knabb, a speaker at the National Hurricane Conference, said the center has talked about a storm surge warning system for years and could have a system ready by 2015.

“We need a storm surge warning,” Knabb said. “The thing with storm surge is the public doesn’t understand their risk very well.”

The problem arose several times this year when wind speeds did not justify a hurricane warning, but the storm surge associated with the storm was still dangerous, he said.

“We want to move toward calling out each of these hazards individually,” Knabb said, rather than trying to communicate wind speed, coastal flooding, rainfall and more through just one number designated by the Saffir-Simpson Category system.

Getting more information about hurricane risk to the public and political leaders is one thing, but getting people to take action on that information is another, several speakers at the conference said.

“It’s hurricane season, what more can you say,” said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

However, he told the crowd of emergency managers, government agency representatives and other conference attendees that there are many times he’s heard people say they would have prepared differently, “if I’d known it was going to be this bad.”

Fugate said in many of those instances the National Hurricane Center had just spent days telling the public how bad a storm could be, so it’s not a lack of information being offered to the public in advance of storms.

The rest of the message for the upcoming 2013 hurricane season is the same as it’s been in previous years, Fugate said.

Get prepared, don’t pay attention to just the line in a hurricane forecast, don’t focus on what category of storm is approaching, he said, rehashing talking points from previous conferences.

“It doesn’t tell the story,” Fugate said. “It is the impacts we have to plan for.”

Margaret Davidson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Services Center, agreed and added that potential damage to coastal areas will continue to grow.

Sea level rise is continuing and will add water to any future flooding events, she said. In addition, a NOAA report released Monday, which included information from the U.S. Census Bureau, forecasts that the number of people living along the coast will increase by 11 million people by 2020.

The risk associated with living in coastal areas, which are important to the commerce of the nation, is something that needs to be seriously addressed, Davidson said. And that conversation appears to be taking place in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast last year and flooded many communities.

“Today’s flood is tomorrow’s high tide,” Davidson said.