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Hurricane center pushes to improve storm surge warnings

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By Reuters
Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

MIAMI — Friday marks the end of an Atlantic-Caribbean hurricane season in which the greatest devastation was caused by water rather than wind, National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb said.

Accordingly, the center is ramping up efforts to develop warnings that better convey the threat from the deadly storm surge pushed ashore by monsters like Sandy, which slammed the Northeast in October.

“We've been working toward a new storm surge warning for a few years now,” Knabb said at the hurricane center in Miami.

Starting with a meeting next week, the forecasters will review their warning systems and speed development of a separate warning system for storm surge in hopes of having an experimental version ready to test in the next couple of years, he said.

It will include a high-resolution graphic showing how high the surge would grow and how far inland it would reach at various times. Storm surge rarely correlates neatly with wind strength, Knabb said.

“Hurricane-force winds and storm surge doesn't always occur in the same places or at the same times when a storm approaches,” he said. “Where the storm surge occurs is very dependent upon details of the coastline and the elevations and all that.”

The United States is increasingly at risk from storm surge. Much of its densely populated Atlantic and gulf coastlines lie less than 10 feet above sea level, and the seas are gradually rising as the Earth warms and ice caps and glaciers melt.

At the same time, the population in the hurricane region is growing rapidly. From 1990-2008, population density increased by 32 percent in Gulf coastal counties, 17 percent in Atlantic coastal counties, and 16 percent in Hawaii, according to the 2010 Census.

Much of the nation's commerce depends on seaports and the transit systems that link to them.

Improving the storm surge warning system not only could help tailor evacuation orders as a storm approaches, it could help homeowners, business owners and governments know where and how to fortify before the next season comes.

“We can't hope that it doesn't happen again ... because it will. It's just a matter of when, not if,” Knabb said.

Superstorm Sandy highlighted the need for more flexible warnings and greater focus on storm surge.

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