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Should Hurricane Warnings Say More About Water, Less About Wind?

During the 2017 and 2018 hurricane seasons, most fatalities resulted from water — not from wind. Yet, when most people think about hurricanes, they think wind. Some say that perception must change.

When people think of hurricanes, most people think of wind. The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale is used to measure the intensity of a hurricane from Category 1 to 5, and that measurement is wind.

But a majority of deaths that result from hurricanes occur from flooding — water surge — and this happens during inland storms as well as on the coast. That has prompted some urging that the public has to be educated about the dangers of water during a hurricane and not just the wind speed.

During the 2017 and 2018 hurricane seasons, 90 percent of the deaths resulting to hurricanes were water related and 49 percent of those resulted from storm surge. More than half of the deaths from water involved an automobile. People often try to drive through water but hydroplane, or worse, float away. Twenty-four inches of water can float an SUV. Six inches of flowing water can knock a man off his feet.

What’s more, the most powerful storm surges occurred 100 miles inland, not on the coast, according to an Orlando Sentinel report.

But when hurricane warnings go out to the public, they mostly warn of the wind capability and that must change. “Right now, it’s all about the wind,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. “We’re not saying wind is not important, it’s just that water is not enjoying the same level of attention, and we think there’s some research we have to do.”

Chapman-Henderson said that people mostly learn visually and that to expect the public to correlate hurricanes with the water hazard, we have to change the visuals. She said it’s time to re-evaluate the symbol that corresponds with hurricane warnings. “I Googled hurricane and 50 symbols popped up and they all looked like wind,” she said. 

“We [in the forecasting profession] have been around this for our entire careers, but there are people coming into this every day for the first time — people becoming adults or moving to a place exposed to hurricanes — so we have to reach the public and go where they live with the information.”

One avenue is a competition where the public is invited to develop art on the subject, which would facilitate discussion at the very least and, perhaps, even conceive a new symbol.

“Even if we don’t change the symbol, just having the conversation we can get people to pay attention to the loss of life in the inland flooding surge,” she said. “Maybe we’ll have a competition, maybe we’ll have a national conversation, but we certainly need to change the public perception and bring this threat into it and this awareness.”

Jason Beaman, support services specialist with the National Weather Service (NWS), said via email that NWS has, for a decade, conducted social science research to get a better understanding of the public’s perception of response to the threat of storm surge.

That research resulted in storm surge inundation maps issued through platforms including the Wireless Emergency Alert System during tropical surge events.

Beaman wrote that local NWS offices participate in outreach efforts to educate the public on what they should know about storm surge if they live in an area prone to surge. “We strongly encourage the public to not focus on the category of the storm,” Beaman wrote. “The storm category does not provide the full picture of the storm surge and heavy rain flooding threat. NWS provides specific threat information for each storm and we encourage the public to focus on this local information when preparing for a storm.”