Meteorologists to newsrooms: Hurricane impacts defy categorization

Earlier this month, meteorologist and Washington Post contributor Bryan Norcross wrote about how the media’s focus on hurricane category does a disservice to the public. Norcross argued the obsession with the Saffir–Simpson scale, which is based solely on a hurricane’s sustained wind speed and runs from one to five, can come at the cost of explaining more nuanced but life-threatening storm characteristics such as rainfall and ocean surges. He wasn’t alone.

Norcross, his fellow meteorologists, and weather and climate reporters spent the first half of the 2018 hurricane season working to retrain the media. The stories aimed to get writers and newscasters to contextualize category or avoid it when possible. In addition to Norcross’ column, the Post published at least two more pieces about how Hurricane Florence exemplified the flaws of fixating on category. The Post joined a chorus of other outlets with similar messages—see related stories in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Time magazine, and The Los Angeles Times.

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Yet, as Hurricane Michael approached landfall last week, these same outlets and many more emphasized category in headline after headline, lede after lede. They repeatedly highlighted Michael’s move from a Cat 3 to a Cat 4. Many outlets pointed out it only needed to pick up two miles per hour of wind speed to become a Category 5.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 reinforced the Saffir–Simpson scale, developed in 1971, as the default shorthand for profiling a storm when Katrina’s epic impact—then the deadliest hurricane to hit the US mainland in more than 75 years—appeared to confirm its classification as a Cat 5. But a string of recent storms has shown how relatively ineffective the scale is in predicting life-threatening dangers and property destruction.

“Focusing on categories can do everyone a disservice,” says Marshall Shepherd, the director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program. “If you look at Harvey [in 2017], the story with that storm was the days and days and days of rain after it made landfall and wasn’t even listed as a category one storm. If you think about Sandy [in 2012], it was barely a category one when it made landfall and still did all that damage.”  

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Harvey peaked as a Cat 4, but wind caused few problems. After it moved over Houston and meteorologists downgraded the system to a tropical storm, Harvey began dumping rain on the city, and flooding caused dozens of deaths and $125 billion in damage. As with Harvey, the massive amounts of precipitation produced by Sandy in 2012 and Florence last month proved the storms’ most destructive quality.

“The theme for the media should be, ‘Don’t focus on the category, focus on the impact,’” Shepherd says.

Spotlighting impact works best once skies clear. But before and during storms, numbers make for effortless, eye-catching hooks. Category, wind speed, size, and the number of named storms in a season frequently appear at the top of hurricane coverage because, even if they don’t reveal much, they provide straightforward data people can easily digest. Dr. Richard Knabb, a former director of the National Hurricane Center and currently a hurricane expert at the Weather Channel, isn’t ready to abandon Saffir–Simpson completely because warnings of Cat 3, 4, and 5, hurricanes rightly raise the likelihood people will evacuate ahead of a storm. But he wants to see more reports with information readers and viewers can use to make important decisions.  

 

Local news is doing a really good job of being as urgent as needed. We are the people with teams of meteorologists in the studio, on the ground, and we don’t want to cry wolf because we need to be taken seriously when it matters.

 

“It’s always been futile to try and sum up with one scale what kind of wind and water you are going to experience at your house,” Knabb says. “We need to expand what we talk about to let people know how many feet above dry ground ocean water will reach as it gets pushed ashore and how many inches of rain could fall and where it will flood. I have not seen anyone come forth with a new scale that conveys all this information. I don’t think it’s possible.”

There is no consensus on what a better system would look like. Jason Samenow, the weather editor at the Post, sees coverage improving and cites the National Weather Service’s move last year to add storm surge watches and warnings to its alerts as an important step forward. Samenow would like to see the service develop a whole range of metrics the media can use to publicize impending storm dangers.

We need more tools in our toolbox to convey threats to the public,” he says. The National Weather Service “needs to think carefully about all of this and needs to be innovative with the products and services it provides because ultimately it all starts with them. The media mirrors their messaging.”

Samenow agrees with Bryan Norcross’ suggestions in the Post that weather forecasters make small changes in language to reduce ambiguity. For example, Norcross would strike the nebulous label “major” from storm reports and have every reference to category to include the word “wind” (“Hurricane Florence is now Wind Category 4”).

While Allyson Rae, the chief meteorologist at NBC2 WBBH-TV in Fort Myers, Florida, echoes her peers’ complaints about the overuse of category, she offers a simple fix for consumers: Read beyond headlines, listen past soundbites. Rae recommends paying close attention to details delivered by experts whether in print, online, or on TV. Like most important stories, storms can’t be summed up in a few dramatic sentences.

“Meteorologists are very sensitive to the term ‘sensationalized’ and want to make sure we are appropriately reacting to a storm,” she says. “Local news is doing a really good job of being as urgent as needed. We are the people with teams of meteorologists in the studio, on the ground, and we don’t want to cry wolf because we need to be taken seriously when it matters.”

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Jed Gottlieb spent a decade as the music & theater critic at the Boston Herald. He has written about arts, politics, and Back to the Future for Newsweek, Paste and many more publications. Follow him on Twitter.