Commentary: The Lack of Understanding of America's Storm Warning System

What I believe to be an unfortunate comment was left on this blog this morning. Here it is.
This wasn't the only comment along these lines. The comments below were left at the Washington Post after an article about meteorologists staying behind in Key West (as the storm approached) to do their jobs gathering meteorological data and issuing storm warnings for Irma. A sample of those comments:

On a personal note, after hours and hours and hours of 'round the clock, exhausting work to warn of Harvey and Irma, you cannot imagine how discouraging this is. Similar thoughts were expressed on Facebook this morning in a group for meteorologists. But, that is not the point I want to make, which is:

These comments illustrate the utter lack of understanding of the critical service 
meteorologists provide to America. 

First, let me comment on September 11th. While it was a catastrophe, a better word to describe it would be "atrocity." The official toll was 2,996. It was a determined act of terror against innocent civilians. As such, it is inappropriate to compare it to a natural hazard.

What our commenter, Mr. Citizen, and the others do not realize is that without modern weather science and the dedication of meteorologists working around the clock in difficult conditions, Irma would have killed at least as many as lost their lives on September 11. Want to know how I know? Florida's SunSentinel gives us part of the story:

But the survivors of the Great Okeechobee Hurricane of Sept. 26, 1928, know better. They know that whole towns can be washed away in a matter of hours, wiping out generations of families with no one left to identify the dead. They know a storm that killed half the population of western Palm Beach County and left every corner of the county tattered and broken.
They know a hurricane that exacted $16 billion in damage in today's dollars, enough to pitch South Florida into the Great Depression a year before the rest of the country. But it is the loss of life that separates this storm from almost any other. Between 2,500 and 3,000 county residents died that day, making it the second-deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, behind the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of  [September 8] 1900.
If you estimate the number of people killed by the unwarned 1928 Category 4 hurricane to be 2,700 and multiply it by the change in Florida population from 1928-2017, you would have a death toll of more than 38,000! Impossible, you say? Why? The unwarned Category 4 Galveston Hurricane killed about 8,000 (some estimates say as high as 11,000).

Consider this: When Irma was Category 5 or 4 strength and moved across the Caribbean Islands, the death toll (at the moment) stands at 37. While each of those deaths is a tragedy to the friends and families of the victims, that number is almost unbelievably low. The reason? Hurricane warnings.

In the mainland United States, the Irma death toll is seven. 7! That is fewer than an average day's traffic deaths in Florida!
Irma's Storm Surge Floods Miami Streets
The weather satellites, Hurricane Hunters, weather balloons and the rest of infrastructure of the United States' world-leading storm warning system didn't get there by accident. It got here because of the dogged determination of a handful of visionary meteorologists who believed that, with the right tools, highly accurate storm warnings and forecasts could be made that would save lives and property. They have been proven right.

When I wrote Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, there were some, even in meteorology, that disagreed with the premise of the book; that storm warnings are the direct reason for so many thousands of lives saved in tornadoes, hurricanes and downbursts. Tragically, my point was made one year later in Joplin when the warning system broke down during an EF-5 tornado. For the first time since the civilian tornado warning system began, we went back to triple-digit (161) deaths in a tornado.

If the warning system had broken down during Irma's journey across the Caribbean, we would now be discussing a death toll in the thousands.

Weather science, while it has not "conquered" the weather, it has clearly "tamed" it.

Yet, this Nobel Prize-worthy endeavor is almost 
completely unrecognized by the public and by policymakers.

As two of the Washington Post commenters put it (addressing the writer, a NWS meteorologist who was issuing warnings for Irma):
  • "We don't need high wind updates, we know it will be very bad."
  • "You are risking your life for what? To come out of your bunker on Monday to report the sun is shining and it is 88°?"
Without meteorologists, how would you know "it will be very bad."? Normally, these sentiments would be of no consequence. But, with the administration proposing significant cuts in funding for weather satellites and for the operations of the National Weather Service, it is essential that weather science better make its case that meteorological infrastructure is one of the very best investments the federal government makes.

And, if you know a meteorologist in Texas, Florida or who has otherwise been working on these hurricanes, please buy him or her a beer or a Diet Coke and tell them how much you appreciate their work. 


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