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America’s disaster recovery and insurance industries have a unique and vital role to play in the wake of major natural disasters. A catastrophe the magnitude of Hurricane Charley taxes the government and private sector’s ability to respond, especially when the storm intensifies rapidly and doesn’t strike where authorities initially anticipated. This article is focused on multi-location companies and institutions that may require outside resources to assist their people and infrastructure in the recovery process.

When a hurricane approaches the coast, disaster recovery executives ask, “How do we correctly ‘size’ our response?” “How do we get extra people where they are most needed?” There are proactive strategies that can help determine the magnitude of the response and the optimal allocation and dispatch of resources.

Be Prepared

To be proactive, you have to know where the storm will strike and pre-position people and resources near the path of the storm – yet safely out of harm’s way. That requires an accurate forecast of the storm’s path.
There has been criticism in the media about the government’s forecasts of the path of Hurricane Charley. NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) is in a difficult position for two reasons: mushrooming coastal development and political pressure.

 

Extraordinary population growth and coastal development has led to longer evacuation times, in some cases well in excess of 24 hours. Government hurricane forecasters have been vocal in their concern that evacuation times are growing faster than meteorological science’s ability to accurately forecast where a storm will come ashore and what its ultimate intensity will be when it makes landfall.

There are a number of political pressures on the hurricane center. The critical one is to insure that every catastrophic storm is forecast (the “no surprise” National Weather Service). A more subtle pressure stems from state and local politicians who demand that hurricane warnings be extended to certain areas to provide political “cover” for evacuations (“we had no choice, there was a hurricane warning”). This makes NHC understandably risk-adverse (see illustration of the hurricane warning associated with Hurricane Floyd), and, based on my observations, the risk adversity has ratcheted up since Hurricane Andrew.

To deal with these issues, NHC has chosen a strategy of “forecasting the path (or “course”) of least regret.” Translated: When there is uncertainty, forecast the path that affects the maximum number of people (the worst case scenario) so that any deviations in the storm’s actual path, when compared to the predicted path, would be (in relative terms) “a fortunate twist of fate” (my words).

Unfortunately, the strategy of forecasting the “path of least regret” has more or less cancelled out improvements in meteorological science – leaving the accuracy of NHC’s landfall forecasts stagnant for the last 25 years, according to NOAA’s own scientists. Plus, the forecasts are, at times, so large the forecast itself causes its own set of problems due to excessive evacuations.

While prudent from an emergency management standpoint, (and perhaps inevitable, given long evacuations times and the state-of-the-art in hurricane forecasting skill), the hurricane center’s forecasts are not as appropriate to disaster recovery specialists or insurance CAT teams attempting to formulate a response. Companies simply want accurate information – unbiased by evacuation or political considerations.

There are a number of commercial weather companies that make forecasts of the hurricane’s track independent of NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (NHC). Unfettered by politics, the scientific expertise of the private sector is combined with the ability to prepare specific product applications for individual clients. These purpose-specific forecasts, coupled with participation in conference calls and other services – are outside the scope of NOAA’s mission and give clients a uniquely tailored, independent perspective.

There are two types of forecasts from the private sector: those prepared by humans and those that are strictly the output of a computer model of the atmosphere. There are advantages to both.


Models

A computer model is strictly objective and its output can be directly input into the loss assessment models used by many insurance companies. However, I have found no single model that is consistently superior to other models or the National Hurricane Center. So, reliance on a single model puts executives in the position of “putting all their eggs in one basket” or attempting to sort between the model, NHC, and other sources.

That can be a difficult task.

Consider the following comments taken verbatim from official National Hurricane Center discussions pertaining to Charley. Note the diverging forecasts from the alphabet soup of computer models:

 

 

 

TROPICAL STORM CHARLEY DISCUSSION NUMBER 7
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
11 PM EDT TUE AUG 10 2004
THERE IS SIGNIFICANT DISAGREEMENT ON THE SPEED BETWEEN THE FASTEST NOGAPS...THE
INTERMEDIATE GFDL...GFS...AND NHC98...AND THE SLOWER BAMS.
HURRICANE CHARLEY DISCUSSION NUMBER 12
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
5 AM EDT THU AUG 12 2004
THERE HAS BEEN A LEFTWARD SHIFT IN MUCH OF THE TRACK GUIDANCE THIS MORNING... WITH THE UKMET AND THE GFDL SHOWING THE GREATEST CHANGE. DROPSONDE DATA FROM THE G-IV MISSION LAST NIGHT SHOWED A LITTLE MORE RIDGING OVER WESTERN CUBA AND THIS MAY HAVE BEEN RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SHIFT. I DO NOT WANT TO MAKE ANY RADICAL CHANGE TO THE TRACK UNTIL THIS TREND CAN BE CONFIRMED...AND THE OFFICIAL TRACK
HAS BEEN SHIFTED JUST A LITTLE TO THE LEFT FOR THIS ADVISORY. MOST OF THE GUIDANCE CURRENTLY SHOWS A LANDFALL FROM THE TAMPA AREA NORTHWARD THROUGH THE BIG BEND AREA.
HURRICANE CHARLEY DISCUSSION NUMBER 14
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
5 PM EDT THU AUG 12 2004
THERE IS SOMETHING OF A QUANDARY WITH THE LATEST NHC MODEL GUIDANCE. THE NEW GFDL AND UKMET RUNS HAVE MADE A WIDE TURN 75 TO 150 NMI LEFT OF THE PREVIOUS FORECAST TRACK...AND MOST OF THE OTHER GLOBAL MODELS AND NHC MODELS HAVE ALSO MADE A WESTWARD SHIFT. HOWEVER...THE 6- AND 12-HOUR GFDL AND UKMET
FORECAST POSITIONS ARE ALREADY 30 TO 60 NMI WEST OR LEFT OF THE
CURRENT POSITION AND MOTION.

Note: “Guidance” is a synonym for “computer model(s)”.
Given the difficulty experienced meteorologists have of making sense of the computer models’ output, it would be nearly impossible for non-scientists to do so.

Human Forecasts
The greatest advantage of a commercial weather company that uses human forecasters to make its hurricane forecasts is that meteorologists can sort through the maze of models and create a forecast unfettered by political pressures. The forecast can be translated into a GIS format to allow it to be input into the loss assessment models. Since the forecast is made by humans, the forecaster(s) can discuss the forecast and its implications in conference calls with company executives, CAT teams, and other interested parties.
Use of precision technology and meteorological science can help companies and institutions recover faster while facilitating more efficient and safer response for those charged with going into heavily damaged areas.



Michael R. Smith is a Fellow of the American Meteorological society and a board certified consulting meteorologist. He is the founder and CEO of WeatherData, Inc., a business weather risk and storm intelligence provider. His e-mail is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and can be reached at (316) 265-9127.