National Hurricane Center debuts two new tracking tools for 2017 hurricane season

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Over the past few years NOAA has devoted a lot of time, money, and resources towards storm surge research.  Now they are ready to debut two new tools.

"The number one killer for a hurricane and tropical system is storm surge," explains Ken Graham, Meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service – Slidell. "We've never had a warning for that. And our office opened up in 1870. So it's been a long time without a warning for this number one killer.  That's all changing this year."

When it comes to tropical weather, we tend to focus on the winds. The storm category, based on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, only considers the peak winds inside the storm. Yet in many cases, that is not the number one threat.

"The category doesn't tell you anything about storm surge," explains Jamie Rhome, storm surge specialist at the National Hurricane Center. "It tells you a lot about wind and wind risk but it tells you nothing about flood risk."

This season, The National Hurricane Center will be issuing watches and warnings specifically driven by the storm surge threat. The First Alert Storm Team will be posting storm surge watch and warning graphics like this one when appropriate, in addition to the other tropical advisories.

"The guideline is three feet of inundation which would be about waist deep," explains Rhome. "So imagine waist-deep water in your house, your community or road.  At that point we feel that is life-threatening."

A storm surge WATCH will be issued when inundation of three feet or more is possible within 48 hours; the storm surge WARNING will indicate there is life-threatening inundation within 36 hours or less.

Locally, Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas complicate the situation. Livingston, Ascension, St. John the Baptist and Tangipahoa Parishes -- normally considered as inland -- become susceptible to storm surge because of the lakes' linkage to the Gulf.

A good example of this was during 2012's Hurricane Isaac: a category one hurricane that produced record flooding around Lake Maurepas.

Surge WATCHES and WARNINGS are only two of the new products that will be issued by the NHC this year.  The NHC will also deliver maps that depict where extensive flooding might occur.  These maps are not forecasts of the amount of inundation expected, but rather an estimate of just how high the water might get.

"A reasonable worst case scenario," explains Graham. "In other words, we look at the 90 percent probability of that occurring or less.  In other words, it is only a 10 percent probability of that occurring."

While these two new storm surge products will provide a better sense of the flood threat from water being pushed by an approaching tropical system, there are other sources of flood waters.

"That's surge only," Graham said. "That does not handle the water from rivers, any ponding that we get from excessive rainfall.  That map is just storm surge."

Another change at the National Hurricane Center is a new director.

Former director Rick Knabb left the National Hurricane Center in May to take a job at the weather channel. Knabb was the fourth acting director since 2007.

Knabb is credited with implementing new products and services relating to storm surge during his tenure.

Deputy director Dr. Ed Rappaport will take over on an interim basis until a replacement can be found.

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