Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

State News

September 6, 2011

Weather Service forecasts honed for unprepared public

-- — The National Weather Service's warning in New Orleans the morning before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 still stands out as one of the agency's most urgent alerts ever issued.

The massive storm had strengthened to a Category 5 with sustained winds of 175 mph the night of Aug. 27-28, prompting the Weather Service to predict "a most powerful hurricane with unprecedented strength." The prediction noted that "most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer" and that "persons, pets and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death if struck."

The warnings have been credited with getting thousands to move out of harm's way in Mississippi and Louisiana, although the focus on wind damage was largely misplaced. It was coastal storm surge and flooding from breached levees that killed an estimated 2,000 Gulf residents and caused more than $100 billion in damage.

Almost exactly six years later, the last alert for Hurricane Irene before its first U.S. landfall -- in North Carolina on Aug. 27 -- warned of "extremely dangerous storm surge" as high as 11 feet in North Carolina and 3 to 6 feet along the New Jersey shore, plus "large, destructive and life-threatening waves." The advisory predicted rainfall of 6 to 10 inches and isolated maximums of 15 inches from North Carolina to New England.

Perhaps the most succinct storm advice came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: "Get the hell off the beach." Hundreds of thousands did so, although many stayed put.

While those who ignore public safety requests during storms rarely face sanctions, a newly enacted Oklahoma law allows police to impose fines on those who drive around barricades into a flooded road. Penalties can equal the cost of any rescue effort to pull people from harm -- plus the typical $1,000 fine or 30 days of jail time for going around any road barrier.

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