Hurricane forecasting is not for the faint of heart

Hurricane Irene is history and once again my hat is tipped to the women and men at the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Their forecasts were accurate and their timeline for the storm played out very well. NHC was able to get the information to cities and towns up and down the eastern and northeastern U.S. days in advance so everybody could prepare for the nasty weather. It was a terrific combination of humans and technology coming together to save lives.

The numerical prediction computer models that the hurricane forecasters use give them a good idea as to the several paths and intensity levels that the hurricane can take. But it is up to the individual skills of the forecasters to define the forecast specifically. It is truly a human-machine mix.

Hurricane forecasting has improved tremendously over the past several decades. Path of storm forecasts are excellent. Intensity forecasts are still a challenge. In the case of Irene, some dry air at mid-levels of the storm got entrained into the circulation and quickly dropped the intensity of the storm as it made landfall in North Carolina. Those types of things can go unforecasted in the computer models.

irene was the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States since 2008 and struck two days prior to the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (August 29, 2005). It is estimated that damage from Irene will top $7 billion, making it one of the top 10 costliest catastrophes in U.S. history. (Number one is Katrina at $45 billion, number two is 9/11 at $23 billion.)

In preparation for Irene, 370,000 people were evacuated from New York City and about 1 million people from the New Jersey coastal areas. This was a good call by the state governments based on the hurricane forecast. Yes, evacuations are inconvenient, but in this case they saved countless lives. As of this writing, Irene has killed about 2 dozen people. The toll could have been much worse.

With so much of the U.S. population living in popular areas along the Gulf Coast and the eastern seaboard, the pressure mounts on hurricane forecasters to make the correct call. So many lives are at stake. It is a high-pressure forecasting job and the folks at NHC rise to the occasion everytime.