When Hurricane Arthur touched down on the east coast of the U.S., he blew in with a new tool that would help coastal residents understand–and react to–stormy water conditions.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) released a Google map-powered water surge tracking system that visually represents the risk posed to those whose homes are within the scope of upcoming tropical cyclones. Most coastal residents are familiar with the concept of storm surges but often underestimate the potential impact they could make. Many others are simply reluctant to believe that harm could reach them.
Jamie Rhome, who runs the NHC’s Storm Surge Unit, has attested to the doubtful demeanor of coastal inlanders. “We could convince people right along the beach that the ocean has a potential to invade their home, that was a relatively easy sell,” said Rhome in an interview with Public Radio International. “But what was really, really hard is to convince people that might be 10, 15, 20 miles inland that saltwater could invade their homes; it was really hard to get people to evacuate during a storm.”
A surge occurs when winds and low atmospheric pressure combine to raise sea level and push water inshore. Consequences are flooding, water damage to buildings and death to those who caught in the worst circumstances. The NHC hopes to prevent each of these outcomes as best as possible by educating the public with their storm surge maps.
Storms on the eastern and southern coasts of the United States are frequent enough for their inhabitants to generally understand what may be coming their way. Those living close enough to the coast but at a questionable distance are less aware, the most reluctant to take action and will benefit most from the new technology.
Storm surges are becoming increasingly problematic even for seasoned coastal dwellers due to rising sea levels and the growing populations of seaside cities. “That means more people, more things, harder evacuations,” stated Rhome.
It is hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina happened almost ten years ago, especially since its devastating effects are still felt today. Cases like Katrina and the more recent Ike and Sandy are constant reminders to not take threat of tropical cyclones lightly, but stubbornness often prevents people from burdening themselves with over-preparedness. The NHC hopes that with its real-time storm surge maps, people will make better educated decisions at any point within a storm’s lifespan for their own safety.
The storm surge maps are the first of their kind and will undergo a two-year trial period to gauge their impact and effectiveness. The NHC is emphasizing user experience research during its trial period to improve the usability and readability as the technology develops. If successful, the storm surge maps could be released worldwide where the effects of tropical cyclones are even more devastating.
For most U.S. residents, evacuating from an upcoming storm is doable. Although there are disadvantaged Americans with less agency to prepare for or flee from a hurricane, the U.S. infrastructure is generally more resilient than many other areas in the world.
Developing island nations such as Haiti, who was hit by four tropical cyclones in 2008 alone, are the most vulnerable.
In the near future, it is hoped that technology and a solid internet connection will be accessible by all, including the NHC’s surge maps equipped to display storm conditions for any area in the world. At the end of the day, natural disasters are harmful regardless of where they occur and remain the most uncontrollable threat to global health. Circumstances are severely worsened when poverty is thrown into the mix.
Even if it is difficult for people to evacuate, seeing the danger before it arrives might compel people to make the decision to flee. No matter how inconvenient it is to pack up and go, a human life is worth more than taking the risk to stay. That is the sentiment the NHC hopes to instill.
– Edward Heinrich