Posted: 10:23 am Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
By Eliot Kleinberg
ORLANDO — They’re the two people you hope won’t be talking about Palm Beach County or the Treasure Coast this summer. But if they are, you’ll be listening.
When the National Hurricane Conference held its general session this morning in Orlando, the heads of the National Hurricane Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were at their usual spots atop the agenda.
Neither is a stranger to Florida. Hurricane center director Rick Knabb grew up in South Florida and spent years at the hurricane center, west of Miami. And FEMA director Craig Fugate went from being a volunteer firefighter near Gainesville to Florida’s state emergency manager before taking the helm at FEMA.
It was Fugate who steered the response to the consecutive ” mean seasons” of 2004-2005 that brought six hurricanes to Florida, including Wilma, which smashed South Florida.
Wilma, in 2005, was the last “major” to hit the United States and the last hurricane of any strength to strike Florida. That’s eight years and counting, a record.
On top of that, this year’s forecasts so far are for a below-average season.
That puts all hurricane forecasters and emergency managers in, of all things, a panic, or at least grave concern.
On forecasts of a “mild” hurricane season, Fugate said, “It may be mild for you unless you get hit.”
The fear is that people with short memories, or newcomers to hurricane zones, will somehow believe that “below average” means “zero.”
“It didn’t in ’92,” William Gray, the venerable Colorado State University hurricane soothsayer, said this morning. “That’s one of my best years of forecasting. One major hurricane. but it was Andrew.”
On top of that, Gray said, “We’ve been very lucky in the U.S. since 1970. We had a down period from ’70 to ’94. Then we had this “up” period of major hurricanes, major effects. Except for the seasons of ’04 and ’05, we haven’t had much. You take the whole period, 44 years, and we’ve had much less activity during that period than we did in the previous 44 years; landfalling US storms. The public just isn’t prepared for it.”
Knabb said this morning, “there will be more hurricanes, and we all have to be ready.”
He mentioned a new survey, released Tuesday, that said, among other things, that 84 percent of those surveyed still believe, wrongly, that evacuation decisions are linked to wind speed, not storm surge.
“We need to respect all the hazards, wind and water, and get people thinking about their evacuation zone,” Knabb said.
Knabb showed clips of TV interviews with people who had no clue whether they’re in an area of mandatory evacuation.
“As soon as I can ask (smartphone helpmate) SIRI where I am, and am I in an evacuation zone, as easily as I can find out who’s the catcher for the (Miami) Marlins, I’ll be happy,” he said.
Reporter Eliot Kleinberg, who’s covered hurricanes for the Post for more than a quarter century, will report Wednesday and Thursday, April 16 and 17, from the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando. Watch for tweets, blog postings, and web and print stories.