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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When meteorologists downgraded Hurricane Florence from a powerful Category 4 storm to a Category 2 and then a Category 1, Wayne Mills figured he could stick it out.

He regrets it. The Neuse River, normally 150 feet away, lapped near his door in New Bern, North Carolina, last Sunday even as the storm had "weakened" further.

People like Mills can be lulled into thinking a hurricane is less dangerous when the rating of a storm is reduced. But those ratings are based on wind strength, not rainfall or storm surge — and water is responsible for 90 percent of storm deaths.

Several meteorologists and disaster experts said something needs to change with the 47-year-old Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale to reflect the real risks in hurricanes. They point to Florence, last year's Hurricane Harvey, 2012's Sandy and 2008's Ike as storms where the official Saffir-Simpson category didn't quite convey the danger because of its emphasis on wind.

"The concept of saying 'downgraded' or 'weakened should be forever banished," said University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd. "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, a corrections officer from Trenton, to stay behind. "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 (119 kph) it is considered a Category 1 hurricane and it ratchets up until it reaches the top-of-the-scale Category 5 at 157 mph (252 kph). Florence hit as a Category 1 with 90 mph winds — not a particularly blustery hurricane — but one that dumped nearly three feet of rain in parts of North Carolina and nearly two feet in sections of South Carolina.

"There's more to the story than the category," University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said. "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, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, 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, including rain and storm surge seriously — and communicates them. 

Forecasters were telling people four or five days before Florence hit that it would be a "major flooding event," said Bill Lapenta, director of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction, which 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, a former president of the American Meteorological Society, said the weather service did a great job at forecasting and 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 and will do more after Florence.

It's only going to be more necessary in the future because global warming is making hurricanes wetter and slower, so they drop more rain, Shepherd said.

University of Alabama's Jason Senkbeil studies the intersection of meteorology and social science and is working on two different new hurricane scales using letters to describe danger or potential damage. Florence would be an "Rs" 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 (10)
  • anthonyc-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:23 a.m.

    The rating system is misleading. On page 1 it states Florence hit as a Category 1 with 90 mph winds — not a particularly blustery hurricane — but one that dumped nearly three feet of rain in parts of North Carolina and nearly two feet in sections of South Carolina. This shows that the rain can be more dangerous then the wind and people are only paying attention to the weakening wind and people are staying in not safe areas with all the rain.

  • sophiak-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:23 a.m.

    The rating system for hurricanes can be very misleading. It can lead to people thinking that a certain hurricane is a lot less dangerous then it actually is.In paragraph 5, it says "With Florence, I felt it was more dangerous after it was lowered to Category 2." This is a very bad situation. after the system said the hurricane was "downgraded" to a category 2 storm, you would think it would be better. But according to this guy, it was a lot worse.

  • beccap-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:23 a.m.

    The rating system was misleading, because they only rate hurricanes on the wind speed. In paragraph 13 it says, " 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.' " This proves that even if the wind speed lowers there could still be danger in terms of flooding, and rainfall. In conclusion, the rating system was misleading because they only rate hurricanes on the winds. If the hurricane drops in rating, this causes people to stay, even if there is more danger to come.

  • jackw-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:25 a.m.

    The rating system was misleading because when some people see a category 1 they think they can stay and be just fine. In the article it states, "rainfall just doesn't sound threatening." This shows that people like Wayne just think they can stay in their house and hold the storm out.
    If the storm stayed a Category 4, Mills said, "I definitely would have left." This explains that Wayne basically judged the rating system of the category instead of thinking of any other deadly factors such as water or rain.

  • emmad-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:27 a.m.

    The rating system was misleading. On paragraph 1 and 2, it states, "When meteorologists downgraded Hurricane Florence from a powerful Category 4 storm to a Category 2 and then a Category 1, Wayne Mills figured he could stick it out. He regrets it. The Neuse River, normally 150 feet away, lapped near his door". This shows that the rating system doesn't add in the amount of flooding when they determine the category. In conclusion, the rating system was misleading.

  • driaf-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:28 a.m.

    The official Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale can be misleading. In paragraph 7, it states, "Once a storm hits 74 mph (119 kph) it is considered a Category 1 hurricane and it ratchets up until it reaches the top-of-the-scale Category 5 at 157 mph (252 kph). Florence hit as a Category 1 with 90 mph winds — not a particularly blustery hurricane — but one that dumped nearly three feet of rain in parts of North Carolina and nearly two feet in sections of South Carolina." The hurricane scale is for wind, not rain. So, even if there is a Category 1 hurricane, that doesn't mean it is safe. There may still be lots of rain.

  • bens-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:28 a.m.

    In the novel, Hurricane rating system fails to account for deadly rain, from Smithsonian it shows the rating system is misleading because it doesn't include the water factor and flooding. In paragraph three it states, "People like Mills can be lulled into thinking a hurricane is less dangerous when the rating of a storm is reduced. But those ratings are based on wind strength, not rainfall or storm surge — and water is responsible for 90 percent of storm deaths." This shows that the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is almost an unreliable source due to the fact that it does not include rainfall and storm surge. In conclusion, the hurricane grading system is misleading because it does not account for the storm surge and rainfall.

  • evelynb-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:29 a.m.

    The rating system for hurricanes is misleading.The rating system only rates the catagory 1,2,3,4,or5 and that includes winds and how fast its moving.but the catagory doesn't include Rainfall,storm surge or chances of flooding.On paragraph 9 Susan cutter says National Weather Service "have not done a good job at communicating the risks associated with tropical systems beyond winds."This shows even someone who is familier with storms admitts that the catagory rating system is not the best it could be.Overall this rating system is misleading because it does not include all the facts.

  • milapg-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:29 a.m.

    In the article, Hurricane Rating System Fails to Account for Deadly Rain by Seth Borenstein and Allen G. Breed the rating system was misleading because the system is for wind, not rainfall and storm surge. In paragraph 3 it states "But those ratings are based on wind strength, not rainfall or storm surge — and water is responsible for 90 percent of storm deaths." This shows people could be mislead and thought it would be ok to stay. In conclusion, the hurricane rating system fails to account for deadly rainfall.

  • giannag-biz
    10/15/2018 - 08:31 a.m.

    The rating system was misleading. It was misleading because it makes people think that if a hurricane downgrades to a 1 or 2, they can stick it out. The system doesn't tell you about the rainfall or storm surge. In paragraph 3 it states, "But those ratings are based on wind strength, not rainfall or storm surge" This shows that people think since its a category one storm that it won't do much damage.

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