Hurricane forecasters add storm surge warnings this year

Hurricane season kicks off June 1

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ORLANDO, Fla. - This hurricane season, the National Weather Service will start issuing storm surge watches and warnings for residents in the path of watery danger along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

"Storm surge — the ocean being pushed onto normally dry ground by the winds of the hurricane — often doesn't occur at the same places or at the same times as the hurricane-force winds," Rick Knabb, then-director of the National Hurricane Center, said during last week's NOAA Hurricane Awareness Tour stop at Orlando Executive Airport.

"And the call to action is different. What do you do in the face of storm surge that's different? You evacuate. Whereas for wind, you shelter out of flood-prone areas in a strong structure," Knabb said.

"And so, it's important to have these separate warnings so you can focus on the hazards," said Knabb, who left his post Friday to return to his former job as a hurricane expert on the Weather Channel.

Hurricane season kicks off June 1, eight months after Hurricane Matthew triggered extensive storm surge flooding in northern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The new watches and warnings will be issued to coastal areas that face a significant risk of life-threatening storm surge, said Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist and warning coordination meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center.

On the Gulf Coast last September, Hurricane Hermine became the first hurricane to make Florida landfall in 11 years. The Space Coast experienced a too-close-for-comfort brush with Matthew's wrath, Florida Today reported.

"Had it moved just a little bit to the west, you could have gotten those Category 3 winds onshore. It was a very, very close call," Brown said.

Also new for this year: Meteorologists will begin issuing earlier tropical cyclone watches, warnings and advisories for disturbances that may threaten land within 48 hours — "you might see our advisories a little sooner for something trying to form on our doorstep," Knabb said.

Ed Rappaport, acting director of the National Hurricane Center, spoke about this new "potential tropical cyclone" information Wednesday during the Governor's Hurricane Conference in West Palm Beach.

“The problem is that, until this year, the NHC could issue forecasts and its watches and warnings only for existing tropical cyclones. We had to have already a tropical depression, tropical storm or hurricane out there before we could issue our advisories,” Rappaport said.

This policy constituted a gap in forecasters' abilities to issue warnings at appropriate times, Brown said.

"One of the most recent cases was Tropical Storm Bill in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2015. It was a disturbance that kind of moved off the Yucatan Peninsula moving toward Texas, and it didn't become a tropical storm until about 18 hours before it made landfall. So at the time, because our watches and warnings are tied to our advisory products, we couldn't issue a tropical storm watch or warning," Brown said.

"Last year, we may have issued this for Hermine as it was moving into the Florida Straits. We might have put up a tropical storm watch for the Florida Keys, because it was forecast to form as it was moving through the Keys," Brown said.

"Another example last year was Hurricane Matthew. It basically formed over the Lesser Antilles. Had we had this capability last year, we probably would have started advisories maybe a day before," he said.

Also debuting this hurricane season is an experimental "wind timing" map that depicts the earliest reasonable and most likely times that tropical storm-force winds will arrive.

"A lot of changes this year — all for the better, we think, to again focus on the individual hazards. What wind, what water could occur where you live? And what do you need to do about it before it arrives?" Knabb said.

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