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Assessing All Risks Vital to Understanding Hurricane Impact

While wind speeds capture headlines, North Carolina’s history proves that people in storm-susceptible areas should heed the risk of inland flooding, storm surge, tornadoes and falling trees, among other hazards.

satellite view of a hurricane
(TNS) — When viewers call Gannon Medwick in the days leading up to a storm to ask whether they should evacuate, he turns the question around.

Medwick, the chief meteorologist at Wilmington’s WECT, told a group of meteorologists and emergency managers Thursday that he tells callers he can’t answer the question before asking, “Do you know your risks to a specific set of impacts? What is your level of aversion to those risks?”

During Thursday’s Southeast North Carolina and Northeast South Carolina Tropical Integrated Warning Team meeting, meteorologists and emergency officials stressed that residents should take all hazards into account and understand which can affect their lives. While wind speeds can capture headlines, the region’s history proves that people living in storm-susceptible areas should be paying attention to the risk of inland flooding, storm surge, tornadoes and falling trees, among other hazards.

“Just because a storm’s peak winds are coming down, the overall hazards -- especially the storm surge and flooding hazards which tend to kill the most people -- may not be changing at all,” said Michael Brennan, the branch chief of the National Hurricane Center’s hurricane specialist unit.

Since 2010, Brennan noted, storms measured as Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson scale have caused 175 deaths and more than $103 billion in damage. A Category 1 storm is defined as one with sustained wind speeds of 74 to 95 mph.

Hurricanes Florence and Matthew both made landfall as Category 1 storms before causing an estimated $24.2 billion and $10.7 billion in damage, respectively.

“There’s no such thing as ‘only a Category 1’ or a minor hurricane,” Brennan said.

Medwick was particularly critical of using the Saffir-Simpson scale’s wind speed category to evaluate hurricanes, going so far as to urge Brennan and the NWS to condemn its use.

“There’s so many questions ... real rubber-meets-the-road individual questions that are so tied to that one category,” Medwick said. “Even if it’s buried in a (news) story, it’s never buried.”

Instead, Medwick suggested a forecast’s focus should be on the specific impacts, including storm surge and inland flooding.

Earlier, Brennan had described the National Hurricane Center’s forecast process, emphasizing preparedness in a broad area a week to five days before a storm, focusing on a specific area three to five days before a storm, and beginning to describe potential effects and then specific hazards once a watch or warning has been issued.

“We’ve made a conscious effort to really not emphasize the Saffir-Simpson scale when we don’t think it’s useful,” Brennan said.

In instances such as last fall’s Hurricane Michael, though, which rapidly strengthened before making landfall in Florida’s panhandle as a Category 5 storm, Brennan added, the scale can be used to draw attention to an imminent danger.

Brennan also stressed that hurricanes can affect areas outside of a storm’s cone of uncertainty and well before the storm is projected to make landfall. On the latter point, for instance, rain from Florence lashed New Bern, causing severe flooding in the Craven County city’s historic downtown last Sept. 13 before officially making landfall just north of Wilmington the next morning.

Scott Dean, the chief meteorologist at Wilmington-area WWAY-TV, described the importance of outlining those risks in rapidly growing coastal communities where there are likely many residents who have not had to make choices about evacuating during hurricanes.

“It’s a constant education process,” Dean said. “You can’t take a year off with any of it.”


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