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Hurricane Discussion Analyzes the Past, Provides Forum for Concerns About the Future

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Dick Fletcher and Vanessa Espinar
Above: Dick Fletcher, chief meteorologist at WTSP Channel 10, speaks with Vanessa Espinar, USF journalism intern at the USGS, about the importance of informing the public about hurricane hazards.

Florida faced a harsh hurricane season in 2004. In anticipation of what may come this year, a group of scientists, researchers, and the public gathered June 3 at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) St. Petersburg Science Center in St. Petersburg, FL, to discuss “Hurricanes: Predicting Their Path of Destruction.”

This was the second meeting in the Community, Science, and Environmental Policy Brown Bag Discussion series, a lunchtime forum for focusing on topics of interest to scientists, policymakers, and the general public. “One of the goals of the series is to present the scientists’ perspectives on issues that are in the media and are of public interest,” said Ann Tihansky, a USGS hydrologist who has been working in science communication and is one of the series organizers. “So many times, you hear about an issue in the news, and it’s only part of the story. A lot of the science gets glossed over.”

Organizations represented at the discussion included the USGS, the University of South Florida (USF)’s College of Marine Science, the Florida Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “Some folks from the public will be there to see and hear scientists and policymakers interact,” said Chris D’Elia, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Studies at USF and another of the lunch-series organizers. “This will help the public appreciate some of the constraints. The discussion will also help scientists, especially, to learn how to communicate better with the public and to listen to their concerns.”

To kick off the discussion, three Tampa Bay-area scientists with hurricane expertise gave presentations about hurricanes. Abby Sallenger, USGS oceanographer and project leader of the USGS National Assessment of Coastal Change Hazards, discussed the use of technology to forecast erosion before hurricane landfall. Sallenger showed slides of the collapse of five-story buildings and the disappearance of houses in Orange Beach, AL, during Hurricane Ivan and said that coastal Florida might face such destruction in the future. He related historical information on hurricane activity, pointing out that from 1965 to 1990, only two hurricanes affected Florida, whereas from 1940 to 1965, 17 hurricanes made landfall in Florida. “We’re now back into an active hurricane period, and over the next few years we’ll see more,” he said. “Most of our heavy building in coastal areas occurred during the period of low hurricane activity. Perhaps our luck has run out.” Looking at the damage caused last year by Hurricane Ivan in Alabama and comparing it with the damage caused by several hurricanes in Florida provided an important opportunity to “learn from the 2004 hurricane season,” said Sallenger.

Bob Weisberg, a professor in the USF College of Marine Science, discussed his research on modeling how different factors affect the impact of storm surge. He pointed out four factors that help determine storm-surge impact in the Tampa Bay area: storm intensity, landfall location, speed of approach, and direction of approach. “If a hurricane lands north of Tampa Bay, we get a large surge, whereas if it lands south of Tampa Bay, we get a lesser surge,” he said. Direction of approach is also a factor because storms approaching from the south have less of a surge than those approaching from the north. Speed plays a role because the faster the storm moves, the less time there is for water to be moved from one place to another; hence, the smaller the surge. “Slow-moving storms make larger surges,” Weisberg said. Hurricane Charley’s rapid speed and approach from the south help explain why a high-impact storm surge did not materialize.

Dick Fletcher, chief meteorologist at Tampa Bay’s Channel 10, brought a news producer along to record the event and talked about the importance of getting vital information out to the public. “No matter how many words I say or what I say, I’m not done until [the public] understands what I mean,” Fletcher said. In addition to getting the information out to the public, he has to find a way to convince people to take action. Fletcher added that the media should encourage the audience to pass the message along to others. “We grew up thinking it was normal not to have a lot of storms,” he said. “We had a false sense of reality.” Weisberg agreed, “We need to educate the public more so that they will take things more seriously.”

The Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence (COSEE) provided the technology for a Webcast that allowed virtual guests to join in the discussions. After the scientists presented their various perspectives, the group discussion covered topics ranging from privatizing weather information to figuring out how to condense scientific information into simple words, a task that is more challenging than it first appears.

Related Web Sites
St. Petersburg Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Hurricane and Extreme Storm Impact Studies
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
National Assessment of Coastal Change Hazards
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Coastal Ocean Modeling and Prediction System
University of South Florida (USF)
USF College of Marine Science
University of South Florida (USF)
Tampa Bay's Channel 10
WTSP Tampa / St. Petersburg

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in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Coral Coring in Flower Garden Banks NMS

Research Brief Tsunami Warning Startles U.S. West Coast

Outreach Lessons and Questions from the Indian Ocean Tsunami

Summer Internship at the USGS National Wetlands Research Center

New Web Site About Indian Ocean Tsunami

Public Forum About Coral Degradation

Hurricanes: Predicting Their Path of Destruction

Meetings Impact of Carbon Dioxide on Marine Life

Awards William R. Normark Receives Francis P. Shepard Medal

Publications July Publications List U. S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
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