The 10th anniversary of Katrina and the beginning of the 2015 hurricane season make it a good time to look back—and ask about the future.
Hurricanes (and their counterparts Cyclones and Typhoons), are Nature’s greatest weather threats. A glance at the worst hurricanes in U.S. history shows why—more than 13,000 fatalities from the 5 deadliest storms, and some $235 billion in damages from the 5 most destructive storms alone!
The lists also reveal another important fact: the deadliest hurricanes (with the exception of Katrina) lie far in the past, while the costliest are more recent. This makes sense. On the one hand, we’ve gotten better at forecasting and issuing warnings, so storms don’t catch people by surprise. On the other hand, there are more people and structures in hurricane zones than ever before as our population grows.
Ten years ago, Katrina proved all too well that modern hurricanes can still be both deadly and costly. What have we learned since then and how can we do better next time?
What we’ve learned since 2005
The science of forecasting has not been standing still. We’ve made significant advances in satellite and aircraft data, computing/modeling capabilities, and scientific research. Specifically, the National Hurricane Centercites three big improvements in Hurricane forecasting:
- A global storm surge watch and warning system, built through a collaborative effort of the National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service, and National Ocean Service.
- National Hurricane Center forecasts look 5 days ahead now instead of 3, while watches and warnings look two full days out instead of just 1-1/2.
- The tracking error range is much narrower, meaning the accuracy is much greater. In 48-hour forecasts, what used to be a 200-mile wide error range is down to just 75 miles.
- The Weather Company has been a leader in this space. Five years ago, a forecast was updated every 6 hours. Today, TWC delivers a forecast whenever a user requests it – this translates to over 10B forecast requests delivered per day on average and over 26B during times of severe.
These improvements, and others still to come, should help keep us all safer.
What businesses have learned
We always want to focus on safety first, but businesses have improved how to prepare for hurricane season as well.
In 2004, Walmart got a lot of press for being smart about stocking their stores. A NY Times article talked of how the company used “some groovy software to figure out what Floridians bought” when hurricanes approached. (For the record, strawberry Pop Tarts and beer were top sellers.) Today, many companies use the same technique. We don’t call it “groovy software” anymore, we call it analytics, and it’s a common practice at large retailers, energy companies, and other businesses that want to understand consumer reactions to the weather and prepare accordingly.
Businesses are also learning to factor in the sales surges that can result from social media attention, especially for critical and/or top selling items. (Think millions of Facebook posts and Tweets about what to rush out and buy right now!)
Complacency is the enemy
There is one area where we might have lost ground, and that’s in the public’s sense of urgency. Sandy is still fresh in the minds of people in New York and New Jersey, and New Orleans won’t soon forget Katrina, but it’s been many years since the last big hurricane hit Florida. Around the U.S., a million more people live in hurricane zones than a decade ago, and many of them have never experienced a big storm. The predictions of a slow hurricane season in the U.S. (a result of the expected strong El Nino) may add to public complacency.
The most important lesson about hurricanes hasn’t changed: be aware, be vigilant, and have a plan in place. The science of hurricane forecasting is better than ever, but staying safe is still up to the people who live in the path of these great storms.