Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 7:27 PM GMT on January 05, 2010
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) announced today that beginning with the 2010 hurricane season, their hurricane and tropical storm watches and warnings for the U.S. coast will be extended in time by an additional 12 hours. Warnings will now be issued 36 hours in advance instead of 24 hours, and watches will be issued 48 hours in advance, instead of 36 hours. The increase in lead time for watches and warnings has been made possible by the tremendous improvement in hurricane track forecasts, which have improved by over 50% in the past twenty years (Figure 1). "With increases in population and infrastructure along vulnerable U.S. coastlines, emergency managers need more lead time in order to make life-saving decisions regarding evacuations", said Bill Read, director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center, in today's press release.
Figure 1. Average track errors for NHC Atlantic tropical storm and hurricane forecasts issued between 1990 - 2008. Track errors have improved by over 50% in the past 20 years. Image credit: National Hurricane Center.
NHC has been debating for a number of years how best to "invest" the gains accrued from the steady improvement in hurricane track forecasts. One obvious savings from these better hurricane forecasts has come from the reduced evacuation costs. When a hurricane warning is issued 24 hours before the expected arrival of hurricane-force winds at the coast, it costs approximately $1 million to evacuate each mile of U.S. coast warned (Aberson et al., 2006). This number will be higher for more densely populated areas of the coast, such as Miami, and may be a factor of six lower for the North Carolina coast (Whitehead, 2003). According to a 2007 presentation at the 61st Interdepartmental Hurricane Conference, the length of coast warned decreased significantly in the past decade. During the decade of the 1990s, the average length of a hurricane warning was 455 miles, but that fell to just 335 miles between 2000 - 2006. Thus, an average of 120 fewer miles of coast were warned, at an average savings of $120 million per hurricane warning issuance. During this period, 17 storms requiring 25 hurricane warnings occurred. If the costs of coastal evacuations are indeed $1 million per mile, the improved hurricane forecasts between 2000 - 2006 resulted in savings of $3 billion compared to what the forecasts of the 1990s would have cost.
However, the new increased lead times for hurricane watches and warnings will lead to an increase in the length of coast warned, due to the higher uncertainties in hurricane tracks at longer forecast lead times. Between 2004 - 2008, approximately 25% of the coast that was placed under a hurricane warning actually received hurricane force winds; this percentage was 20% for areas placed under a hurricane watch. These percentages will decline with the new increased watch and warning lead times, costing money in unnecessary evacuations, and leading to increased complacency in the warned population due to too much "crying wolf".
Balanced against these increased costs is the potential disastrous loss of life should a hurricane hit an unprepared, heavily populated shoreline. With the U.S. population continuing to increase rapidly in coastal regions, the time needed to evacuate vulnerable populated regions is increasing. For example, evacuation times for the major urban areas of Texas are 28 - 34 hours for a major hurricane. Though the costs of overwarning the coast is significant, the savings in both human lives and dollars from increased warning times should outweigh these costs. In the 2002 book, Hurricane: Coping With Disaster, Dr. Hugh Willoughby, former director of the Hurricane Research Division of NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Marine Laboratory, analyzed hurricane death statistics. In 1950, about 70 U.S. residents died per year in hurricanes. In the 50 years since, the coastal population expanded by a factor of 3.2, so if we were managing the hurricane problem the way we did in 1950, we would be losing about 220 people a year. The long-term average is still about twenty per year, not including the deaths due to the levee failures during Katrina. That means we're preventing about 200 deaths per year compared with 1950. How much are these saved lives worth? A life, is, of course, priceless, but in the cold world of economics, the value of life-saving scientific research and government regulations is estimated using statistics of what people are willing to pay to avoid certain risks, and what extra money employers pay their workers to take on additional risks. This data comes primarily from payroll statistics, but opinion surveys also play a role. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) valued an American life at $8 million. EPA cut the value of a life by 8% that year, and a further 3% in May 2008, making the economic value of a life $6.9 million in today's dollars. The Department of Transportation gives a lower figure of a life as being worth $5.8 million. Using this number implies a savings of about $1.2 billion per year for the 200 lives saved per year by better hurricane warnings and evacuations. Today's decision by NHC to increase warning times should continue this trend of saving lives, which will also provide considerable monetary benefit. Despite the increased costs and dangers of "crying wolf" too often due to overwarning the coast, I believe that the double value of saving lives--for both the intrinsic and monetary value of a human life--makes NHC's move of increasing warning and watch times the right call.
Whitehead, J.C., 2003: "One million dollars per mile? The opportunity costs of Hurricane evacuation", Ocean and Coastal Management 46, 1069.
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