The National Hurricane Center has in recent years worked to distract the public from the familiar forecast cone with colorful graphics and detailed maps that better communicate threats beyond wind speed.
Under the leadership of former director Rick Knabb, storm surge flood maps, rainbow-hued storm arrival time graphics, and surge watches and warnings are now available to help people make better decisions when facing a tropical cyclone.
But Knabb, who resigned his position this spring to take a lead forecasting job at The Weather Channel, left with one task unfinished — how to punch through a message that freshwater inland flooding is a deadly menace that can linger long after winds abate.
“We have aimed ourselves in the right direction but we still have challenges communicating inland flooding from heavy rain,” Knabb said during April’s National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans. “In this country, we haven’t yet gotten afraid enough of water.”
As Harvey sat stubbornly over Texas on Monday and the muddy drama of catastrophic flooding continued, Knabb’s oft-repeated concern of a rain-driven takeover was highlighted in what the National Weather Center described as an “unprecedented” event and “beyond anything experienced.”
In fact, so much rain fell in Texas, the weather service was forced to update the colors on its graphics to reflect areas that saw amounts greater than 30 inches. People on social media were already recommending Harvey be stricken from the hurricane name list — a fate given to storms that wreak deep devastation. And previously unfathomable rain totals of 50-plus inches were becoming reality.
Knabb said The Weather Channel worked hard to emphasize Harvey’s inland flooding danger. He said previous to the storm’s landfall, he focused on storm surge concerns and rainfall amounts during broadcasts.
“It’s still a challenge, but I would say we were sounding the alarm on the inland flood threat even when Harvey was still a depression,” Knabb said. “Do we think people have learned to stay off the roads when there is inland flooding, and have we gotten more people to take flash flood watches and warnings more seriously? I want to say yes, but the event is still ongoing.”
In 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, 23 people were killed by inland flooding in North Carolina. Nineteen of the drownings happened because people drove or walked into flood waters. None of the flood-related deaths in North Carolina were associated with storm surge.
Former FEMA director Craig Fugate, who is a senior advisor at crisis communication firm BlueDot Strategies, said he wouldn’t comment on the decision not to evacuate Houston or surrounding areas while people are still being plucked from flood waters.
But Fugate agrees that getting the message across about inland flooding dangers is a priority. The well-regarded Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind scale makes no mention of rain-driven flooding, and the storm surge aspect was long ago separated from the scale that ranks storms 1 to 5 depending on wind strength.
“I saw a lot of commentary that Harvey was weakening and had been downgraded, but the only thing that got downgraded were the winds,” Fugate said. “Meanwhile the rainfall forecast was skyrocketing.”
Palm Beach County got a tiny taste of a tropical cyclone-driven deluge in August 2012 when Tropical Storm Isaac sputtered by with little wind damage, but dumped more than a foot of rain when a training band of moisture stalled over the county.
Some residents in western Palm Beach County were stranded for five days in flood waters that lapped at their front doors. Firefighters drove trucks through four feet of water to help get people to doctor’s appointments or to buy supplies. Some schools were closed for a week.
But Isaac was a mere inconvenience compared to the months of recovery facing southeastern Texas after Harvey. For all its bravado — Harvey was the first major hurricane to hit the U.S. since 2005’s Hurricane Wilma — it was water that was Texas’ undoing.
“I believe the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service have done a fantastic job communicating the flooding hazard for Harvey,” said James Franklin, the hurricane center’s former chief of the hurricane specialist unit.
Franklin, who retired this summer, said there were ongoing discussions about improving hurricane center graphics to communicate inland flooding threats, but they were going to take time to develop.
One suggestion Knabb made was to put flood watches and warnings on the hurricane center’s website, or play up the Weather Prediction Center’s “excessive rainfall outlook” and “mesoscale precipitation discussions.”
“If we come back and find that we had a good forecast but people didn’t understand it, then it didn’t help,” Fugate said.