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'Short fuse storms' are a major concern as Florida prepares for hurricane season

The center of Hurricane Ian nears Florida's Gulf Coast.
The center of Hurricane Ian nears Florida's Gulf Coast.

Heading into what’s expected to be another busy Atlantic hurricane season, forecasters and emergency managers said Wednesday improvements in forecasting mean the public will have more time and information than ever before to prepare.

What they continue to dread are the short fuse storms that rapidly intensify.

“These short fuse storms are hurricane emergencies that require the ability to put action plans into place on constrained or reduced timelines — not even five days out,” National Hurricane Center Director Mike Brennan said during the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference in West Palm Beach.

“Getting a system that may not even form until two or three days prior to landfall, and then make landfall at these very high intensities, is a significant challenge.”

READ MORE: Plan to spend $2.7 billion to protect Miami-Dade from storm surge soon headed to Congress

Hurricanes that undergo rapid intensification increase wind speed by at least 35 mph, and sometimes more, in 24 hours or less. Scientists worry that as climate change warms the planet, these storms will become more frequent.

Earlier forecasts have called for another above average season. In its preseason forecast, Colorado State University called for 23 named storms this season while the University of Pennsylvania is forecasting 33 named storms, fueled by higher ocean temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to issue its preseason outlook next week.

Vast improvements in forecasting

Twenty years after Florida got walloped by four hurricanes in just six weeks — when Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jean pummeled the state — forecasting has vastly improved both in accuracy and predicting hazards.

Errors in track forecasts are half what they were in 2004. Predicting intensity has also improved. Two days before Idalia made landfall in the Big Bend, forecasters warned it would blossom into a powerful storm. Forecasters are also able to better predict storm surge and wind field, helpfully explained in simple graphics. When Idalia struck, they warned flood waters could range between seven and 11 feet. The surge rolled in at 10 feet.

This aerial photo shows homes surrounded by floodwaters in Steinhatchee, Fla., Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, left behind by Hurricane Idalia.
Daniel Kozin
This aerial photo shows homes surrounded by floodwaters in Steinhatchee, Fla., Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, left behind by Hurricane Idalia.

“There were no storm surge fatalities in Idalia in Florida,” Brennan said. “From the meteorology aspect, from the forecasting aspect of messaging, emergency management, the media, this is something that we should not take for granted.”

That has put emergency managers in a better position to order evacuations and focus on the more complicated job of staging emergency workers in critical areas, said Kevin Guthrie, director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management.

“Search and rescue is a classic example that has to be done in the first 24 hours,” he said. “We need to make contact and knock on every door within the first 24 hours.”

When Idalia hit, only one of the 11 counties in the path of the storm had search and rescue teams, he said. And it was the state’s smallest. That meant staging additional law enforcement, National Guard and health officials, as well as highway workers to clear roads and additional paramedics.

“They are going to come whether you ask for them or not,” he said. “It's not coming to take over your disaster. It really, truly is coming to support the disaster. But we are going to stage 20,000 linemen, 30,000 linemen. We're going to stage, like we did in Hurricane Idalia, 8,000 National Guard members. We're going to stage a thousand state guard soldiers.”

A paradigm shift

Recent hurricanes are also changing emergency responses, he said. During Idalia, the state erected a ‘Volunteer Village’ with trailers and food tents for volunteers who came to help. That will now be part of the response to large disasters, he said. The state also relies more often on private contractors, he said.

When Idalia threatened to hit Tallahassee, the state staffed 80% of its emergency operations center with private contractors, he said.

“Twenty years ago, we would have never allowed a contractor to come into our EOC. My God, it would have been a government employee that was going to be there come hell or high water,” he said. “But that's a paradigm shift that we've gone to and we will not be successful without that type of mentality.”

This month, Guthrie said he’s been touring the state to meet with local emergency managers to get a better idea of what could been needed for the coming season.

The hurricane center will also have some new tools in its forecasting toolbox. That includes an experimental forecasting cone that will show potential wind hazards as storms continue to move over land, even as they lose strength and disintegrate.

All advisories, warnings and outlooks will also be translated into Spanish. Advisories may be issued every three hours to provide more up to date information. The center will also provide additional graphics as well as provide earlier forecasts, starting at five days out, for windfields.

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Jenny Staletovich