The storm surge from tropical hurricanes causes most of the storm-related deaths in the United States, yet the National Weather Service’s long-used forecasting system typically focused on high winds, often falling short on providing reliable predictions and warnings for the public on impending coastal flooding.
Storm Surge Specialist Jamie Rhome and his team have radically changed this dynamic with the development of a new sophisticated model and warning system that more accurately predicts the storm surge two days before a hurricane’s landfall and is updated every six hours.
“Jamie Rhome has led the advancement of the science and operational modeling of storm surge, which has resulted in enhancing the ability of the National Weather Service to predict and warn of a storm surge days before deadly waters rise,” said Kenneth Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center.
“His actions and interactions with the emergency management community directly led to the evacuation of millions of people during the 2017 and 2018 hurricane seasons and saved lives,” Graham said.
After the new system was introduced in 2017, only five lives were lost to the storm surge during Hurricane Michael and none from the storm surge caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma. By comparison, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 took 44 lives due to the ensuing storm surge. In 2005, at least 1,500 people lost their lives during Hurricane Katrina, and many of those deaths were directly or indirectly caused by the storm surge.
Traditionally, weather experts used wind speeds to measure the severity of a tropical storm and largely relied on that information to issue storm surge warnings. Rhome and his team realized it is more than just wind strength that generates a storm surge. They understood that this complicated phenomenon is a function of ocean depth, the landfall location, the shape of the coastline, and the hurricane’s forward speed and size.
For example, Hurricane Charley in 2004, a category 4 storm, struck the Southwest coast of Florida and produced 6 to 7 feet of storm surge, while the Category 3 Hurricane Katrina produced approximately 27 feet of storm surge when it made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi.
In addition to coming up with a new prediction model, Rhome and his team have worked with weather forecasters and emergency managers, training them to use the new system and to communicate with the public during storms. Rhome’s graphic predicting storm surge—a staple on the Weather Channel now—has given the public an easy way to understand if they are in danger.
To design the graphic, Rhome worked with social scientists and focus groups, which was a novel approach. He also worked with the Federal Communications Commission to get storm surge information included with emergency alerts transmitted by cell phone companies.
Rhome’s model covers the U.S. from Texas to Maine. He’s gone on to create a prototype model for the Dominican Republic and Haiti and is working on warnings for Puerto Rico and California. Other countries are now asking his advice on setting up their own models.
Graham said Rhome completely changed how people thought about hurricanes and has provided extremely valuable information to communities. “Critical evacuation and infrastructure decisions are being made because of Jamie’s work, including where to place shelters and when to evacuate hospitals and assisted living centers,” Graham said.
William Lapenta, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, said Rhome “had this vision when the technology didn’t even exist.”
“The biggest challenge was developing the technology and creating the numerical models that determine what the surge might be in particular areas,” Lapenta said. “To be successful, Jamie had to work across organizational boundaries. Different information technology systems had to be modified and updated, each with their own processes, to turn this concept into an operational system.”
Rhome said changing the way the government looks at hurricanes was difficult, but important for public safety.
“History has taught us that water is the primary killer in a hurricane,” Rhome said. “That gap between what people think first [wind] and what they are dying from [water], is what we’re trying to address. What keeps me up at night is the fact that people just don’t understand this phenomenon at all, and that we’re going to have a major event at some point.”