Important lessons learned from Hurricane Irma

We're now at point where we can look back upon Hurricane Irma

By Paul Gross - Meteorologist
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Irma's trek from the Atlantic Ocean through Florida, into Georgia and beyond.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - We're now at the point where we can look back upon Hurricane Irma, and there are some important lessons learned that should stay with us forever.

1. There is a lot of "fake weather" out there in social media-land, and a lot of weather-wannabees who started "projecting" Irma's landfall a week or more in advance. It is important to remember that hurricane forecast errors five days in advance are large, let alone longer than that. There are so many atmospheric ingredients that can alter steering currents, and some of those ingredients simply cannot be fleshed out a week in advance (sometimes, even days in advance). I know it’s hard, but try to ignore the "mediaologists" when you hear about tropical development, and rely upon the two sources you know you can trust: The Weather Authority and News4Jax.com. We take our responsibility very seriously, and will never hype or sensationalize these storms. We promise to tell you what we know, what we don't know, and to keep things in proper context.

2. Now, about those computer models. Yes, we show them on the air to provide perspective on a storm's forecast path. Sometimes the models agree, and sometimes they don't. But we meteorologists cannot emphasize enough that the computer models are not perfect. We know the physics and thermodynamics that they are based upon and, in times of great disagreement, we sometimes have to go with an average forecast track until the models start developing some consensus. The most obvious thing we monitor is whether they agree (or not) with their respective forecast paths, but we also watch for run-to-run consistency. A model that maintains a very similar path day after day needs to be given some credence when dealing with other models that are jumping all over the place with their storm tracks. In Irma's case, as the models started showing some agreement, it became clear that Florida was in its sights. However, the devil is in the details, and it wasn't until Friday and Saturday that a more westward track trend began developing. Furthermore, despite what some models were still showing early Sunday morning (a track right up Florida's west coast), simply looking at the radar showed that this storm was heading inland right over Marco Island and Naples.

3. When you live in an evacuation zone and are told to evacuate, LEAVE! Far too many people say things like "My house made it through Wilma just fine, so I'll be fine with Irma." That logic cannot be more wrong. Every hurricane has its own unique characteristics. Wind speed might be the same in two storms, for example, but a different wind direction could mean a very different flooding scenario and damage pattern than you saw last time. Rainfall amounts also play into this: expected total rainfall could be the same as with a previous storm, but let's say that the previous storm dropped 14 inches of rain in three days, but a current storm drops that much rain in a day-and-a-half, the resulting flooding can be very different -- and much more dangerous. Also remember that human decisions also may change. For example, in Hurricane Harvey, decisions were made to release water from some reservoirs that then exacerbated flooding in some communities. The bottom line is that emergency managers, working with National Weather Service hydrologists, know where flooding is expected to be worst, and plan evacuations based upon this knowledge and data. The decision to evacuate is not a random one -- it is a very precise process, and a decision that is not easy to make. Heed the instructions to leave, and don't second guess if things didn't pan out as expected. It's always better to plan for the worst and get the best. The alternative is not pretty.

4. Rather than wait for word about the next storm before putting together your hurricane preparedness kit, consider getting many of those supplies together at the beginning of the hurricane season so you already have most of what you need on hand when the need arises. Have your water, non-perishable food, batteries, etc. already stored away for the day you may need it, rather than being out in that mad crush for supplies that everybody around the country sees on the news before every storm.

5. Finally, we all owe a great deal of gratitude to our first responders: police officers, firefighters, FP&L and many, many others who have sacrificed a great deal personally, forgoing their own personal situations in order to help ours. And it is our responsibility to do what we can to help them do our jobs. First and foremost, one of the consequences of not evacuating is that you suddenly may be in dire need of being rescued, and asking a first responder to come rescue you during the height of a storm puts their life in danger. And sometimes conditions are so bad that they can't. I'll never forget a county sheriff in Texas during Hurricane Harvey talking about hearing the people who dialed 911 in sheer panic screaming for help, and having to tell them that conditions were so bad that they could not send anybody out to rescue them. Think about that for a minute. Also, after a storm like Irma, we need to initially stay off the roads. The first order of business is always getting the roads cleared so that first responders can quickly get to people in need, so FP&L can get crews out to start restoring power, and so demolition and construction crews can start their work. The next time you see a first responder, shake their hand, give them a hug and say thank you from the bottom of your heart.

Graham Media Group 2017