When you think of a hurricane and its potential impacts, you may not first associate those risks with an inland city like Roanoke. That’s something that officials at the National Hurricane Center are trying to change.
“Up here is where our dropsonde operator sits. It’s our only enlisted crew member on the airplane, but they have the coolest job. They get to fire the cannon,” says Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Ragusa, a pilot of one of the U.S. Air Force's Hurricane Hunter airplanes.
“We are almost assuredly going to drop one at the pressure center of that storm, so that is how they are going to categorize that storm – based on the pressure at the center…”
The primary job of the Hurricane Hunters is to collect vital information used by forecasters on the ground, who simply don’t have the vantage point that an aircraft can get.
Daniel Brown is a senior hurricane specialist.
“A lot of the data also goes into the computer models themselves. And so, when we are out collecting this information and it gets into those models, it provides the models also a better starting point and tends to produce a better model forecast," says Brown. "Which then we rely on those models to make our forecasts at the Hurricane Center.”
Those forecasts are then relayed to the public ahead of a hurricane or tropical system, and often include information on what risks people can expect.
Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, says those risks can stretch well beyond what people may normally think of when they hear about hurricanes.
“When people close their eyes, a lot of times when they think of a hurricane or anything tropical, they see a beach, they see palm trees, they see the wind. I think when you live inland, you don’t realize how dangerous that can be,” he says. "In this area, 1985, the flood record was from Hurricane Juan; a tropical system. So, you can go back in history and see it, even last year with Michael causing the flash flooding and fatalities."
Graham says that’s why inland cities like Roanoke were picked to be a part of this year’s tour. Data shows that more than 80% of fatalities from hurricanes and tropical systems over the past three years were caused by inland flooding.
Graham says the science behind forecasts is better than it has ever been, but that’s not the challenge.
“So the last mile is getting people to understand that risk and then taking the steps it takes to be prepared, but also being ready to go when the warnings come out, when the flooding is there." Graham says, "you can have a perfect forecast – unless it’s actionable, that last mile fails.”
That’s why Graham is placing a bigger focus on social science and communication during his time as director of the National Hurricane Center.
And that will include more tours like this, with more visits to inland localities.