10 Years After Rita, We Still Need Better Hurricane Storm Surge Prediction

Although the Atlantic Ocean has been relatively quiet this season, events such as Hurricane Rita remind us that forecasting chaotic storms is an imperfect science, but there are ways we can make it better. And it starts with how we predict storm surge.

At this time in 2005, the U.S. was beginning to recover from Hurricane Katrina while Hurricane Rita was forming off the coast of Africa. Rita became one of the most intense hurricanes ever to form in the Atlantic. Initial forecasts showed the storm making landfall near Galveston, which caused panic and led to mass evacuations in the Houston-Galveston metropolitan area. The initial forecasts turned out to be wrong; the hurricane took a northward turn. It made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border on Sept. 24, 2005, with a much greater storm surge than had been forecast, causing widespread damage and flooding.

A hurricane forecast consists of two main components: a forecast of the hurricane wind field, usually reported as the category and track of the hurricane; and a forecast of the resulting storm surge. Both forecasts are made using sophisticated computer models.

Although wind and storm surge are both important components of a hurricane, storm surge is more deadly and causes most of the property damage. It is still difficult for these models to accurately capture the intensity of a storm, but they have shown significant improvement during the past decade, especially at predicting the track of the storm.

Storm surge modeling, however, is in a less advanced stage. It is true that there have been improvements, but the National Hurricane Center still relies primarily on one model, called the SLOSH model, which was developed decades ago. Recently, however, other models have demonstrated significant predictive capability and are undergoing adoption by the National Hurricane Center to enhance storm —> Read More