Season expected to be heated
Landfall probability in Monroe increases

By Steve Estes

Hurricane prognosticators thus far say that the 2013 season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, should be slightly above average, with anywhere from 12 to 18 named storms, nine of which will become hurricanes and up to five major storms.

The statistical average for the last couple of decades has been 12 named storms and three major storms.

Where this year’s forecast differs from the last four or five years is that every forecaster seems to be placing the probability of a US landfall at least 50 percent higher than the previous three years.

According to Colorado State University’s Dr. William Gray, the chance that the coastline of the United States gets hit with a named storm this year is 72 percent, with a historical average of 52 percent.

He says the probability that the east coast, including Florida, gets smacked with a named storm is nearly 50 percent, with a historical average of 31 percent.

Gray points out that the sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Caribbean have taken a significant shift upward in the last few months. Warm sea water is fuel for a hurricane, thus the forecast for an above average season.

Gray’s forecast also paints a not-so-rosy picture for Monroe County in the upcoming hurricane season.

His models predict that Monroe County stands a 36 percent chance of taking a hit from a named storm this year. The historical average is 22 percent.

The probability of a major storm striking here is nearly as great as a simple named storm at 27 percent, well above the historical average of 16 percent.

Gray’s forecast calls for a 13 percent chance that a major storm targets Monroe County, up from the historical average of eight percent.

The forecast predicts higher-than-normal sea temperatures throughout the season this year, providing the fuel hurricanes need to sustain themselves and to grow.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center have thus far agreed with Gray’s outlook though their own predictions are yet to hit the streets.

While wind can be a problem in Monroe County, the majority of damage here is done by storm surge, even though Monroe County doesn’t see the levels of storm surge as some other coastal communities due to the presence of the reef a few miles south and generally shallow water leading to the island chain compared to other coastal communities.

NOAA will be unveiling a new coastal storm surge prediction system this year that will be tailored more toward the individual community than the old Saffir-Simpson surge scale that simply set parameters for surge based on the wind speed of the storm.

According to NOAA officials, the new modeling system will predict storm surge based on area,and instead of giving the predictions in feet above sea level or feet above high tide, will give the prediction based on feet above ground level.

During a presentation this week to the Key West Lodging Association, National Weather Service forecaster John Rizzo said the new tool will tell local residents how deep the water might be when they’re standing in it.

The last major storm that smacked the Keys was Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. Wilma was the last of a string of storms that brushed or impacted the Keys during the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons, and most of the damage done by that 110-plus-mile-per-hour storm came from the flooding that followed the winds ashore.

This will also be the first hurricane season since Monroe County changed its evacuation process.

The Board of County Commissioners voted last year to move the deadline for evacuation calls to 36 hours before the anticipated onslaught of gale-force wind rather than the 30 hours previously used.

Commissioner David Rice called the move “prudent” if public safety is the ultimate goal in an evacuation scenario.

The BOCC also changed the evacuation procedure to move more units into the first phase of evacuations rather than the final phase.

The county had been using a three-phase evacuation scenario where visitors and special-needs residents were ordered out 48 hours in advance of anticipated gale-force winds. Mobile home dwellers and those in low-lying areas were ordered out 36 hours in advance and permanent residents were ordered out 30 hours in advance.

The phased evacuation has been changed to a two-phase approach with the first two categories of the old system going out 48 hours in advance and permanent residents out at 36 hours.

The county had surpassed its state mandated ability to clear the Keys of people in 24 hours and has been undergoing a study to change the evacuation methodology for about two years.

To reach the 24-hour plateau, planners changed occupancy and participation numbers to more accurately reflect real-world happenings, they said, and shifted more units to the initial evacuation phase to maintain the 24-hour clearance time for permanent residents.

Monroe County Emergency Management Director Irene Toner has already been urging residents to check their hurricane kits for the upcoming season, create a family evacuation plan, and communicate those plans to out-of-area family members.

And stay safe.

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