National Hurricane Center director: False storm assumptions are dangerous, fuel complacency

13 year old David, Jr. comforts his mother, after the family of 7 had their manufactured home in Mims destroyed from a tornado spawned by Hurricane Irma.

MELBOURNE, Fla. – “This is just a Cat 1 hurricane.”.

“It has never flooded here before.”.

“I’ve been through a Cat 3. Nothing happened here.”.

National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham has compiled a list of misleading – and dangerous – assumptions uttered by politicians and emergency managers over the years.

In fact, a couple of months ago in Key West, Graham said he stopped a meeting after an official incorrectly claimed, “We’ve been through a Cat 4. Nothing happened here,” when Hurricane Irma struck last September.

In reality, Irma’s top wind gust at Key West International Airport only clocked in at 82 mph, NHC records show.

“Cat 1 winds in Key West. The perception part of this is tough. The messaging is tough. It didn’t get the brunt of this,” Graham told a breakfast crowd Thursday morning.

“After the storm, so many people were like, ‘I’ve been through big Irma. I’ve been through Irma, I can get through anything. Look, nothing happened to my house.’ Can’t do that. Can’t compare storms,” Graham said.

“A Cat 1 could come along that’s large and slow and do more damage in Florida than Irma did,” he said.

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Graham displayed a PowerPoint slide this of bogus hurricane statements during a meeting of the Melbourne regional chamber.

He delivered a 30-minute hurricane overview and debunked a local legend that nicely fit his list: No, NASA did not develop Kennedy Space Center because the Cape is immune from hurricanes.

In April, Graham took the helm of the NHC. He replaced Rick Knabb, who returned to his former job as a hurricane expert on The Weather Channel.

Graham started working for NOAA in 1994 as an intern forecaster in New Orleans. He went on to work National Weather Service jobs in Fort Worth, Texas; Silver Spring, Maryland; Birmingham, Alabama; and Corpus Christi, Texas. Prior to his promotion, he was meteorologist-in-charge of the agency’s New Orleans/Baton Rouge office.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was the seventh most active on record, producing the most major hurricanes since 2005. Included were a record-breaking three Category 4 landfalls in the U.S.: Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Plus, Harvey set a new U.S. Tropical cyclone record by dumping 60.58 inches of rainfall. All told, 2017 ranked as the costliest year on record in the U.S., Racking up $265 billion in damages.

Among Graham’s key messages to the crowd:.

• Hurricane track cones continue to shrink, as NHC forecasting improves. But the cones depict neither storm sizes nor storm impacts.

“You’ve got Irma, but you’ve got massive storm surge in Jacksonville, well outside of the cone,” Graham said.

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“We’ve got to find ways to communicate that. We know that. But people are jumping in and out of the cone, trying to stay out of this ‘cone of destruction,’ ” he said.

• When most people close their eyes and think of a hurricane, they envision swaying, wind-battered palm trees.

However, 90 percent of Atlantic tropical cyclone deaths are caused by water, particularly storm surge and inland flooding.

• Post storm, NHC officials will concentrate on delivering safety messages on Facebook and other platforms because many victims get hurt after the winds have passed.

“By the way, after a hurricane, reading the instructions on how to use a chainsaw is not the time to learn it,” Graham said, drawing laughter.

The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season extends through Nov. 30. Graham said he is frequently asked if it’ll be an active season or an inactive season, and he warned that it doesn’t matter.

“If there’s one storm on planet Earth, if it hits the Space Coast it was busy. Does that make sense? Preparedness doesn’t change,” he said.

Follow Rick Neale on Twitter: @RickNeale1.

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