Should Seasonal Hurricane Forecasters Be Held Accountable?

Toward the end of the 2007 Atlantic Hurricane Season, a Florida Hotel magnate, threatened to sue Dr. William Gray, Philip Klotzenbach, and the rest of the hurricane forecast team at Colorado State University for its 2007 season forecast that called for above average activity. The action suggested by Harris Rosen, raised debate amongst many in coastal areas throughout the United States on whether or not, seasonal hurricane forecasters should be held accountable for their forecasts. To give you an idea of how contentious this issue is. Take a look at the poll results from a survey given by a local Orlando TV station.

Rosen, a well known hotel owner in the Central Florida region, believes that the Sunshine State lost billions of dollars in tourist revenue due to these forecasts, which were deemed incorrect by those in the media although there were a total of 17 depressions, 15 named storms, 6 hurricanes, 2 major hurricanes (both Category Five Storms), which against the 50-year averages were at or about average to above average levels. Most importantly though, none of these storms really affected Florida, particuarly the two major hurricanes: Dean and Felix. The argument raised by Rosen brings up the ongoing debate that has existed for decades of whether or not forecasters are crying wolf. This not only concerns the seasonal forecasts, but also when watches and warnings are issued for particular areas of the U.S. coastline.

Let’s face facts everyone. The seasonal forecasts have not performed well in terms of the numbers the past couple of seasons. Particularly, two years ago when a weak instance of the El Nino dampened down the numbers of tropical storms and hurricanes in 2006. Even in 2005, the numbers were way off since that season was by historic levels, off the charts. However, whether you like it or not, the numbers of named storms were above the 50-year averages in both 2005 and 2007, and that is what really matters here. Now, when I say that, I also want to further point out that with an above average number of named storms, there should be an awareness that the possibility of such storms not only developing into a hurricane or major hurricane, but also making landfall anywhere along the United States coastline. Bottom line, there is increased potential for the possibility of a hurricane developing and making landfall with the phrase increased potential being very important. Whether that potential becomes reality is another story. It is the same thing that happens here in the Northeast when forecasters call for a major snowstorm that doesn’t pan out.

There are many in the world including some that I’ve talked to in my travels, who resent forecasters since people believe that forecasters can get it right only about 25 percent of the time (an arbitrary number), and still be able to keep their job. The man on the street doesn’t have that luxury. The art of forecasting is still far from perfect. You can also say the same thing for those, who analyze the economy, or the stock market for a living. Sports analysts, especially those who made prognostications on the recent edition of March Madness, never get it right either. It is a game of chance, but that game can play with people’s lives, especially if you are living along the shoreline from Maine to Texas every summer. But, this not only affects people’s vacation plans, but also their insurance rates, and coverage. The moral of the story is though, that people need to be prepared each year no matter what the prediction. The chance of a storm coming every summer does exist regardless of who forecasts what.

For example, look what happened in 1992, there were only seven named storms that year, which was significantly below the 50-year average. However, that season produced the most destructive hurricane prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with Andrew that plowed through South Florida in August of that year. It only takes one storm everyone. The forecast for increased activity only increases the risk. People need to be aware of that risk. If the conditions are ripe for above average storms in a particular year, people should know about it. Now, my feeling is that perhaps that forecast shouldn’t be quantified since the average person on the street seems to be more focused on just the numbers rather than the reasons or factors that led to such a forecast. This past season was a classic example. Now is true that the numbers were below the figures that were originally expected, but if you compared them to the ten year average, they were either on the money, or above the average, which meant that the forecast was close to being on the mark.

If the forecasts are to be quantified, then perhaps it should be given in a range, or in some way so that at season’s end, people don’t jump to conclusions and think the forecast is completely off the mark. Now, NOAA already does this, and this may be so that it differentiates itself from Dr. Gray and his staff’s prognostication. There is always going to be a fine line here. Money and lives are at stake, and can be greatly affected by a forecast whether it is a long range seasonal forecast, or a forecast for landfall. For example, those living along the Gulf Coast remember Hurricane Elena back in 1985? A lot of Labor Day Business was lost as well as costs to local and state governments for Emergency Management, and other storm related expenses. Despite all the technological and forecasting advancements, and major strides made from just the past 60 years or so alone, forecasting is still a mystery.

As a result, people need to be prepared and made aware of the risks. Many times I get e-mails from people looking to get advice on the upcoming season so that they can make plans for taking a trip. I usually don’t like telling people to go ahead and take that trip, but I advise them of when the season is at its peak, and what the seasonal forecasts are indicating. In addition, I also try to tell them that they need to watch and listen to their local media outlets in the event that a tropical storm or hurricane does develop in the region. The problem that some people have is that they are often not aware of the risks, don’t understand them, or if they are aware of the risks, ignore them and think it won’t happen to them. Coastal residents and vacationers need to be vigilant, alert, and properly informed on a storm that is out there. Having those three characteristics makes them well armed to make the right decisions about a trip, or to evacuate or not regardless of a seasonal forecast.