Rhome, the man who oversees the National Hurricane Center’s Storm Surge
Unit and is blazing a trail with new forecasting methods, told a
Hatteras Island audience during a weekend presentation on hurricane
preparedness that it’s not the category of a storm that the public
needs to pay attention to during hurricane watches and warnings – it’s
the storm surge probabilities and predictions.
Rhome is one of the country's leading experts on
storm surge, and he gave a presentation to about 50 people at the
Fessenden Center in Buxton on Saturday morning, May 21. On Friday
morning, he spoke to county and municipal officials involved in
emergency management and gave another public presentation at a Nags
Head open house on Friday evening.
The meetings were a public outreach event to get
valuable information out on storm preparedness, as well as familiarize
the crowd with new research and tracking methods that are being
introduced by NOAA's National Hurricane Center and the National Weather
“We want you to be prepared – that’s why these
meetings are being held,” said Board of Commissions Chairmen Bob
Woodard at the May 16 meeting.
And there was a singular theme throughout the two-hour morning presentation, which grabbed everyone’s attention.
“If you don’t take away anything else – if you
want to go to sleep for the rest of the morning – remember this,” said
Rhome. “The Saffir-Simpson scale is not the weapon of choice to
determine your vulnerability... It’s storm surge that does the damage.”
The Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale is what
most folks follow in the days and hours before a storm makes landfall.
Dividing storms into categories based on wind speeds affects whether
the majority of people leave or stay during a hurricane evacuation.
For example, most islanders have an internal rule
to head west if a category 3 or 4 is expected, but will stick around
for a category 1 or a tropical storm.
But, surprisingly, the category has little if any
bearing on how bad a storm is actually going to be, according to Rhome.
“There is no such thing as ‘just a tropical storm,’” he said.
And paying attention to the category and wind
speeds to determine how to react to a storm is a common misguided
practice. Rhome reported that 84 percent of people believe that they
need to evacuate based on the strength and category of a hurricane.
“That is false – the reason why most people need
to evacuate is because of storm surge,” he said. In fact, Rhome said,
storm surge causes more than 50 percent of fatalities and the majority
of financial loss during hurricanes occurs from storm surge.
And through video clips and images of recent
storms, Rhome provided some pretty vivid evidence to back up this
central message. The attendees watched before-and-after shots of areas
that were devastated by category 1 hurricanes and even tropical storms
that made landfall miles away from ruined areas.
A photo of a typical home in Biloxi, Miss., was
shown before a hurricane and in a post-storm surge shot where only the
front yard tree remained on the property. An aerial view of New Jersey
after Hurricane Sandy – which didn’t even make regional landfall as a
hurricane – was an equally powerful example of the damage storm surge
“Hurricane Sandy was barely a Category 1 and it
cost $65 billion dollars in damage,” Rhome said, “It’s a great example
of why category doesn’t matter.”
And as locals who lived through 2003’s Hurricane
Isabel will attest, the “wall of water” that marks a storm surge is a
force of nature that can’t possibly be combated or controlled.
“Think of it as a bulldozer that just marched and
marched and marched,” said Rhome while explaining the effect of storm
surge via a photo of a ravaged Gulf Coast shoreline. “… and when it
left, everything in its wake was gone.”
The other key point during the presentation was that history plays no role in determining the effect of future hurricanes.
He used the example of the Fukushima nuclear
disaster of 2011 as a prime example on how relying on history to
determine future occurrences can go terribly wrong.
When the Japanese nuclear power plant was
established in the late 1960s and 1970s, engineers looked back at more
than a century of tsunami and storm events to determine how high the
water had risen in the past. Once they determined that maximum line of
how far the water had risen, they built the power plant just past it.
In March 2011, a tsunami that was triggered by
the Tōhoku earthquake went well past that line and destroyed the plant.
It was the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, and was
the second disaster to be given the Level 7 event classification on the
International Nuclear Event Scale.
“My job is to find the worst case scenario, and
once we find it, give it to emergency planning,” explained Rhome. “We
call it the ‘Black Swan’ – If I find the black swan, I say ‘Don’t put a
power plant here.’
“And the storm you had 10, 20, or 30 years ago will not tell you what the next storm will look like,” he added.
So how is the severity of a storm determined?
There are a number of factors that affect storm surge, which don’t
include history, but which do make the forecasting of the actual
effects of a hurricane easier to determine.
These factors include forward speed, the angle of
approach, the shape of the coastline, the slope of the coastline, and
the central pressure and / or size of the eyewall. “Just because a
storm weakens from a category 4 to a category 1 doesn’t mean you dodged
a bullet,” said Rhome. “All of that energy has to go somewhere.”
With this new wave of information, Rhome and his
team are able to create Probabilistic Storm Surge reports. “We go in
and built multiple tracks and landfall locations, and say ‘If it comes
in like this, you’re in trouble,” said Rhome.
“We’re empowering [Emergency Management teams]
with much better technology than in the past. So if Drew [Pearson, the
Dare County Emergency Management Director] tells you it’s time to go,
he’s using the best possible information I can give him.”
Rhome’s presentation concluded with new
information that’s now available on the NOAA website. Subsequent
presentations by Richard Bandy and David Glenn of the National Weather
Service Office in Newport/Morehead City – Hatteras and Ocracoke
Island’s local station – expanded on this new available data.
The prototype of the storm surge forecasts were
launched during 2014’s Hurricane Arthur and will be available online
for all future storms. Found alongside the other tracking information,
maps, graphs, and reports on the NOAA / NHC website for each individual
hurricane, these new graphs will highlight storm surge probability and
will be posted with the first hurricane watch for a specific storm.
The color-coded graphs show the storm surge
probability for each specific region, as well as the potential of how
high waters could rise above ground level in increments of three feet
-- such as 0-3 feet., 3-6 feet., 6-9 feet., and 9-plus feet).
Though still being tweaked, the new graphs are a powerful tool for
determining a course of action for coastal communities.
And Rhome noted that in future hurricanes, we
won't have just hurricane watches and warning about the hurricanes wind
strength, but also storm surge watches and warnings, which may urge
evacuations based on the storm surge forecast only.
“They’ve given us the best information in the
world to make a determination,” concluded Drew Pearson at the end of
the presentations. “Storm surge is not a new phenomenon – but
And Richard Bandy of NOAA noted that there were
some improvements and future developments that are still in the works,
including using the technology to forecast the storm surges of winter
storms – a recurring and more common threat for islanders – as well as
factoring in wave height and strength.
“The probable [total feet of] storm surge does not include the height and strength of waves on top of that,” he cautioned.
It was also noted that this information was being
shared with regional and national media outlets. “One of my top guys
has gone to the Weather Channel [as a forecaster],” said Rhome. “We’re
trying to move the Weather Channel and other media towards storm surge.”
And perhaps the biggest takeaway for presentation
attendees? Don’t keep this information to yourself – share it as much
“Go home, talk to your neighbors, give them a
hand-out, and share this information,” said Pearson. “We need to get
the word out.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Rhome -- along with Richard Bandy, meteorologist in charge of the
National Weather Service office in Newport/Morehead City, and Drew
Pearson, Dare County director of Emergency Management -- also recorded
a Radio Hatteras program for the interview show, "To the Point," hosted
by Island Free Press editor Irene Nolan. The interview will be
broadcast on Radio Hatteras at 5 p.m. on two Sundays -- June 5 and
12. If you are on Hatteras, you can listen at 101.5 FM or 99.9
FM. Or you can listen to live streaming on the website, www.radiohatteras.org.