Sep 3, 2021 - Energy & Environment

How to reduce the toll of the next big storm

Total rainfall in Central Park, Sept. 1 night
Data: National Weather Service; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Weather and climate science experts are struggling to determine how their accurate warnings of potentially disastrous urban flooding, instigated by Hurricane Ida’s remnants and supercharged by climate change, still resulted in so many deaths.

Why it matters: As climate change exacerbates extreme precipitation events such as this one, disconnects between forecasters and the public will need to be fixed in order to limit future deaths.

The big picture: A day before the first raindrops started to fall, the NOAA Weather Prediction Center forecast a rare “high” risk of flash flooding in the area that was ultimately affected.

  • Two days before, they issued a "medium" risk outlook.
  • Forecasters made explicit mentions of the potential for extreme rainfall rates, and flood watches were issued two days in advance.
  • They called the potential flash flooding "life-threatening."

Yes, but: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul made it clear Thursday that she was unaware of key forecast details.

  • “We did not know that between 8:50 and 9:50 p.m. last night, that the heavens would literally open up and bring Niagara Falls level water to the streets of New York,” she said Thursday.

What to watch: There have long been tensions between meteorologists and politicians, but as climate change-related extreme events worsen, there’s more urgency behind efforts to lower the temperature in these relationships.

How it works: Flash flooding is one threat that is growing in front of our eyes, as temperatures increase and the air holds more moisture, adding energy to storms.

Context: Gary Szatkowski, who was a top federal forecaster in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy, told Axios he was surprised governors and mayors did not take more proactive steps.

  • He said based on this case, the onus is on the politicians to improve. "It was a great forecast," he said.
  • “Political leaders — governors, mayors, need to talk less, listen more and make better decisions, that's the solution right now. I’d like to see them do that and do that routinely,” Szatkowski, now retired from government, said.

What they’re saying: Samantha Montano, who teaches emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said the onslaught of disasters is taking a mental toll on meteorologists, many of whom live in affected communities.

  • Claims that they failed to provide adequate warning “feel very much like a personal attack,” Montano said.

The bottom line: Studies show climate change is having an increasingly noticeable and dangerous influence on our weather, leading to unprecedented events.

  • Devising effective ways to warn of historic occurrences, especially as the word "unprecedented" loses some of its meaning, is an increasingly urgent task.
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