The memory is seared into our collective American conscience.
As the sea surged over the tops of levees and breached others, an estimated 20 feet of water flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. Once the winds died down, the storm had claimed 1,836 lives and caused more than $100 billion in damage. It was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
On that fateful August day in 2005, Hurricane Katrina carved a path of destruction along the Gulf coast. Now, more than ten years later, it is worth considering whether our nation is prepared for the next storm. Will forecasters be more equipped to pinpoint vulnerable areas that should be evacuated? Will citizens and government institutions be better prepared? Will lives be saved?
While the question of preparedness remains open, advances in forecasting over the past decade have enabled meteorologists to more accurately predict severe weather.
Back in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew struck the southern coast of Florida as a destructive category five storm, the average margin of error for a three-day hurricane forecast was roughly 300 miles. Accurate forecasts for Andrew materialized less than two days before landfall and less than three days before Katrina in 2005.
Hurricane forecasting capabilities have improved since then. The accuracy of three-day forecasts when Katrina hit is comparable to the accuracy of five-day forecasts today. Having 48 additional hours to evacuate coastal residents, board up buildings, and otherwise prepare for such massive storms is invaluable.
Much of this lifesaving progress has been thanks to investments in the scientific work of the National Hurricane Center, a division of NOAA, as well as funding for research infrastructure, such as satellites and supercomputers. The formation of NOAA’s National Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project (HFIP) in 2009 has also played an important role by bringing together top scientific minds and resources to work toward improving the forecasting accuracy of hurricane intensity.
These investments have paid dividends. Long range forecasts for recent storms, such as Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew in 2016, enabled states to take action quickly. In advance of Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful Atlantic storm since 2007, the governors of Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina each declared a state of emergency on October 3, four days before the powerful storm drenched Florida and five days before it made landfall in South Carolina.
With the HFIP on target to reach its goal of reducing hurricane forecasting error by 50 percent by 2019, the prospect of better forecasting tools and more prepared coastal communities is within reach.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.