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Hurricane season: Drones and satellites help make better predictions

Nose radar image of Hurricane Dennis near the time of Florida panhandle landfall in July 2005.
Nose radar image of Hurricane Dennis near the time of Florida panhandle landfall in July 2005.

As we kick off the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season this week, here's a look at today’s weather gadgetry and tomorrow’s.

One hurricane-related death is one too many. But the comparison between the estimated 6,000-12,000 deaths in “The Great Storm” that hit Galveston in 1900, and the 538 deaths in the U.S. last year, testifies to better warnings and preparation, John Cangialosi at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said recently.

“We have so much lead time ... we put up appropriate warnings; everything is in a system and streamlined,” Cangialosi said. “Of course, it’s not perfect, but because we have all these days of warning, we’re able to get the most vulnerable population out of the way — which has been a huge lifesaver.”

Not only does technology develop, Cangialosi says the development appears to be accelerating.

“One of the biggest tools we use meteorologically is, of course, satellites; I see they’re continuing to advance,” he said. “NOAA and NASA continue to build tools to put up better satellites; the hurricane hunters are still flying manually into the hurricane. But there are prototypes to do this unmanned.”

That would involve drones that could stay airborne longer and fly into hurricanes and drop instruments automatically.

“And if we’re using computers and drones — and not manpower for this purpose — we can keep them out for as long as we can as long as we have enough fuel for the operation that could be done,” Cangialosi said. “In addition, radar continues to advance, we’re even getting radars on aircraft — more and more of these.”

The bottom line, says Cangialosi, is that with increasing technology storm predictions will keep getting better and better, leading to less and less damage.

“Less damage to people’s lives, less loss of life; this is all good stuff,” he said. “Because we can put up more accurate warnings, more accurate forecasts. And my hope is that we can then not have the sort of ‘false alarms’ that we still do have — where sometimes we’ll put up a warning, nothing happens in that warning. And then the next time a hurricane comes, people will think, 'Well, nothing happened last time, so I’m not gonna worry about it this time.’”

Benefitting from the advances in technology are more localized weather outlets, such as the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network.

Justin Ballard at FPREN says the new technology comes just in time for what experts say are more intense storms, thanks to climate change. These will not be your grandfather’s hurricane seasons.

“Looking back, even 1992 Hurricane Andrew was a fairly small, kind of compact hurricane," he said. "Not only are storms getting stronger, and potentially causing more impact and expanding in their footprint, but they’re also getting physically larger in nature. That’s also something that we’ve got to be watching out for.”

One of their biggest challenges is dealing with the crush of people moving to Florida and other coastal areas, who have only seen a hurricane on television or online while being out of harm’s way. That includes Ballard, who came to F-PREN from Rockford, Illinois, in October. He says he has the advantage of knowing what to do as a forecaster but adds a lot of other newcomers don’t.

“It will be very interesting over the next couple of hurricane seasons to see how communication may need to be altered a little bit,” Ballard said. “Especially in the state of Florida, since there are so many new residents from colder climates, that may not necessarily dealing with hurricane season on the regular.”

Justin Ballard
Florida Public Radio Emergency Network
Justin Ballard

It’s one thing to get the information on severe weather out to the public; it’s another to get the public to heed it.

Brad Baker, a former public safety director in Santa Rosa County, says using all of your tools is the key.

“And that’s why we diversify our communications; we do Facebook live posts, we tweet stuff out, we talk with the media and do interviews,” Baker said. “So we have a diverse group of folks in our county, and they look for different means. We have a whole group of folks that really don’t use social media, so we have to make sure we communicate with them as well.”

Baker, now an assistant county administrator, adds that public safety falls under his side of the organizational chart, which determines when the emergency operations center is activated, and at what level.

“I’ll just take a different role in there, but I’ll still be involved in any of our disaster responses and overseeing, and making sure the team is headed in the right direction.”

Hurricane season 2022 kicked off Wednesday. The first stormwill be named Alex. NOAA predicts a 65% chance of an above-normal season, a 25% chance of a near-normal season, and a 10% chance of a below-normal season.

NOAA also predicts 14 to 21 named storms with six to 10 becoming hurricanes, and three to six of them could be major — Category 3 or higher.

A continuing La Niña in the Pacific and above-average Atlantic temperatures are setting the stage for the possibly busy season ahead.