Tom Iovino on hurricane preparedness
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05/26/10 Kate Bradshaw
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday | Listen to this entire show:

As the Governor’s Hurricane Conference draws to a close in Fort Lauderdale, government officials are stressing preparedness ahead of what hurricane experts say will be an especially active hurricane season. They’re predicting fifteen named storms in total, eight of those being hurricanes and four of those being major hurricanes. Pinellas County spokesperson Tom Iovino said today that despite inaccurate forecasts in the past, residents in vulnerable areas need to be prepared.

Actually, this year we're looking for a very busy season. You know, the indicators are pointing out that unlike last year, when you had the lower number of storms, it was due primarily to the El Niño coming in. And there were a number of other factors. This year, it looks as if those factors that were helping us last year are really starting to dissipate. And the call is for a busier-than average season. But the reality is, it only takes one storm to make a bad season for you. The classic story is about the 1982 hurricane season, where you had sixteen storms, but the first one was Andrew. To say that was a quiet season is — it's one thing, yes, but for the people in South Florida it was a very active season that they won't forget anytime soon.

Q. Right. So what factors are contributing to forecasters' predictions that it's going to be an active season?

Well, one of the things that's happened is the El Nino has gone away that was protecting us. It created a high wind shear across the tropical Atlantic last year, which — that does help us, certainly. We had a lot fewer storms because they just didn't have an opportunity to get themselves together. This year, with the La Nina building in, the predictions are for much lower wind shear across the tropical Atlantic. Which means the storms will not be torn apart as much by wind shear.

Also, you're looking at higher sea surface temperatures. The kind of storms we had this winter, the way the high pressure and the low pressure set up in the Atlantic, what happened was there were lighter trade winds, which means there wasn't a lot of upwelling of cooler water off the coast of Africa. Now that water is significantly warmer than it normally would be at this time of year, so there's a lot of concern there as well.

Q. So what do you say to those who are skeptical about the accuracy of these forecasting models?

Certainly, you know, when you take a look at a forecast, many people look at the predictions that come from NOAA or Dr. Gray, and they wonder how they arrive at these numbers. And certainly, you know, if it calls for a busy season and it doesn't materialize, people wonder what's happening. Really, though, what we need people to understand though, is that it really only takes one storm. And you know, you can say, “Well, Charlie missed us, and Helena missed us,” but the reality is that, you know, this could happen. As long as we're on the Gulf of Mexico — the Tampa Bay area is along the Gulf of Mexico — the threat still exists.

Q. How heavily has climate change factored into your discussions, or any of the discussions?

That's a very interesting point to bring up. One of the things that we've actually had to take a look at is the possible impact of climate change. There is really no direct, one-to-one correlation between climate change right now and the number or intensity of storms. For instance, you know, in the 2005 season, there were a number of people who pointed to the increased number of storms as an indicator that global warming had a major impact on the hurricane season. And yet, last year, we had a well-below-average season.

So there are a number of indicators out there that may lead one season to be more active than another, but we are discussing the possibility of increased rainfall from storms based on global warming, the possibility of increased intensity. But of course we're always looking at each individual season, and seeing what we can divine from the information.

Q. Are you guys particularly concerned about resources, given the economy, as well as the oil spill and a number of other factors, that might limit a locality's ability to respond to any kind of storm?

Well, certainly we're concerned about the economy. We understand that people have a responsibility to get themselves prepared for hurricane season. And with the high unemployment rate, with the economy the way it is, it's obviously going to be a challenge for people to get themselves and their family ready. So what we tell people to do is to actually start planning now. Make sure you go out and buy those supplies well in advance of the storm. And do it early and in time. This way, if we look at a storm's approach for September or October, you'll have that hurricane kit built up already, and you won't have to run out at the last minute and purchase whatever's available.

Q. I've heard that the elephant in the room, so to speak, is the oil gusher. How is that factoring in, or changing your discussions?

Well actually, the impact of the oil spill on the hurricanes themselves can be very minimal. You know, they're still talking about a very small area inside a much larger body of water called the Gulf of Mexico. So what we're doing is, we're looking at these overall patterns. The storms are obviously going to be taking place in the tropical Atlantic, in the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf. So while the oil spill, certainly we're going to be monitoring it, it's not necessarily going to be the driving force in how we change our response to hurricane season.

Q. Is there anything new that's come to light as a result of this conference so far?

Well, there's some things we've known coming in that have been explained to us. One of the things the hurricane center has done is actually increase the watch-and-warning time by twelve extra hours. So what you do is now instead of a 24-hour warning time and a 36-hour watch time, it's been pushed back twelve hours. And then you receive a better tropical storm and hurricane watch at 48 hours and a warning of 36. Understanding the rationale behind that decision actually is helping us communicate the risk better to our residents, because now they get an extra twelve hours. And certainly we hope that the residents, when they do get a warning, actually consider that in their plans, and allow that extra time.

And that was Pinellas County spokesperson Tom Iovino speaking with WMNF from the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale. Tomorrow, experts with the Project on Climate Science will give us their take on why this season is expected to unusually active. Hurricane season begins June 1.

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