Hurricane rating system fails to account for deadly rain The Lumber River overflows onto a stretch Interstate 95 in Lumberton, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, following flooding from Hurricane Florence. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome/AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)
Hurricane rating system fails to account for deadly rain
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Meteorologists downgraded Hurricane Florence. It was first a Category 4 storm. It then went down to a Category 2. And then they it went down to a Category 1. That's when  Wayne Mills figured he could stick it out.

He regrets it. The Neuse River is normally 150 feet away. But it lapped near his door. He lives in New Bern. It is in North Carolina. This happened last Sunday. This was even as the storm had "weakened" further.

People like Mills can be lulled into thinking a hurricane is less dangerous. This happens when the rating of a storm goes down. But those ratings are based on wind strength. They are not based on rainfall. It is also not based on storm surge. Water is responsible for 90 percent of storm deaths.

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is 47 years old. Several meteorologists said something needs to change with the scale. Many disaster experts agreed. They seek a change. They want a scale to reflect the real risks in hurricanes. They point to Florence. They point to last year's Hurricane Harvey. They look at 2012's Sandy. And they look to 2008's Ike. All were storms where the official Saffir-Simpson category didn't quite convey the danger. That's because of its emphasis on wind.

"The concept of saying 'downgraded' or 'weakened should be forever banished." That's according to  Marshall Shepherd. He works at the University of Georgia. He is a meteorology professor. "With Florence, I felt it was more dangerous after it was lowered to Category 2."

It was a lowered category that helped convince Famous Roberts to stay behind. He is a corrections officer. He is from Trenton. "Like a lot of people (we) didn't think it was actually going to be as bad," he said. "With the category drop ... that's another factor why we did stay."

Once a storm hits 74 mph it is considered a Category 1 hurricane. It moves up until it reaches the top-of-the-scale. That is a Category 5. It has winds at 157 mph. Florence hit as a Category 1. I had 90 mph winds. It was not a particularly blustery hurricane. But it dumped nearly three feet of rain in parts of North Carolina. It dumped nearly two feet in parts of South Carolina.

"There's more to the story than the category." That's according to Brian McNoldy. He works at University of Miami. He is a hurricane researcher. "While you may still have a roof on your house because 'it's only a Category 1,' you may also be desperately hoping to get rescued from that same roof because of the flooding."

Susan Cutter is director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. It is at the University of South Carolina. She said the hurricane center and National Weather Service "have not done a good job at communicating the risks associated with tropical systems beyond winds."

One reason, she said, is that it's much harder to explain all the other facts. Wind is easy.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it takes all hazards seriously. And it says it communicates them. This includes rain and storm surge. 

Forecasters were telling people four or five days before Florence hit that it would be a "major flooding event." That's according to Bill Lapenta. He is director of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction. This includes the hurricane center.

When Florence's winds weakened and it dropped in storm category, he said, "We made it very clear that in no way shape or form that this is going to reduce the impacts in terms of flooding and surge."

Shepherd is a former president of the American Meteorological Society. He said the weather service did a great job at forecasting. It made a good attempt at communicating the risk. But somehow the message isn't quite getting through, he said.

It didn't to Wayne Mills. If the storm stayed a Category 4, Mills said, "I definitely would have left."

Cutter and Shepherd said the weather service needs to work with social scientists who study how people react and why. Laplenta said his agency does that regularly. It will do more after Florence.

It's only going to be more necessary in the future. That’s because global warming is making hurricanes wetter. It is making them slower. This makes them drop more rain, Shepherd said.

Jason Senkbeil is at the University of Alabama. He studies the intersection of meteorology and social science. He is working on two different new hurricane scales. They use letters. They describe danger. They describe potential damage. Florence would be an "Rs.” That stands for rainfall and storm surge.

The trouble, said Senkbeil, is "rainfall just doesn't sound threatening."

But Famous Roberts now knows it is. "I would say for everybody to take heed. And don't take anything for granted."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why was rating system misleading?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (16)
  • MackenzieS-hol1
    10/12/2018 - 09:56 a.m.

    The scale says that the hurricane downgraded to a 2 even when it wasn't. And because of that there were a lot of deaths, many people were told wrong about the storms severity.

  • MaddieS-hol
    10/12/2018 - 09:56 a.m.

    It makes people think that if the rating is low then it's okay to stay. In reality it is still a bad storm so you need to get out.

  • DylanH-hol1
    10/12/2018 - 09:59 a.m.

    The rating was misleading for people in many ways. One way was that it calculates the wind and not the actually hurricane. If it calculated the rain fall, size of the storm and wind then people would know for a fact if its to dangerous to stay. Calculating the wind is bad because sometimes the wind while yes its still strong it can die down very quickly.

  • JayR-hol
    10/12/2018 - 10:00 a.m.

    Because the storm has a mind of its own and sometimes you can never trust the weather people like when they say that there is going to be a huge snow storm tomorrow and there is nothing. Its just like and people need to get used to that but Florence was different it was first a Category 4 then went to Category 2 then 1. How does that then go to Category 5 which is the worst one.

  • TaylorM-hol2
    10/12/2018 - 10:00 a.m.

    The rating system was misleading because the winds were a lot stronger to only be the catorgory that they were in. With the winds being so high and how long the ranking was people wanted to stay because it was ranked so low. But really it should of been a lot higher.

  • GeorgeR-hol
    10/12/2018 - 10:00 a.m.

    The meteorologists did not suspect the hurricane to be a different category because they thought it went from a category 4 to 2 and then 1 but Wayne Mills regrets that he didn't move because the water from a nearby river swept over to his front door which in this case Wayne regrets the decision he made that day. This is why people should decide ahead of time when they get the chance and that they should know this is why the rating system was misleading.

  • HavenH-hol
    10/12/2018 - 10:01 a.m.

    The raining system is just a prediction of what is going to happen in occurrence in time. It can change in the matter of minutes, hours, and even days. The meteorologist who measure these measurements of rainfall, are sometimes off and sometimes right on the dot. Global Warming and other events are making hurricane s wetter and slower, so more will produce. For the people, and meteorologists it is very hard to tell what kind of category hurricane there is.

  • PeytonA-hol
    10/12/2018 - 10:01 a.m.

    The storms are misleading because people think that it is a category one which is not that bad but just because it has a low category doesn't mean it won't do a lot of impacts.

  • AlexA-hol1
    10/12/2018 - 10:01 a.m.

    The rating system is misleading because it only has to do with wind and not rain. They should change that because many people think that the hurricane isn't bad when it's a Category 4 and went down to Category 2 just because of wind and not rain. Especially in the article it say's "Water is responsible with 90 percent of storm deaths." which means why would you rate it with the wind if the wind isn't whats killing most people, it's the rainfall.

  • CarleeH-hol
    10/12/2018 - 10:02 a.m.

    It is miss leading because they are not based on rainfall they are based on wind strength, and its also not based on storm surge.

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