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Read USGS news articles about hurricanes, field studies, and hurricane research.

The Monitor Newsletter - Vol. 13 | Issue September 2023

September is Preparedness Month. Be prepared for hurricanes and the threats they pose. Learn about storm tides, flooding, coastal erosion, mapping...

September is National Preparedness Month

Natural hazards are unavoidable. But with proper preparedness, their impact can be reduced. The USGS and its partners work to prepare, monitor, assess...

Coastal Change Hazards Team Forecasted Hurricane Idalia Beach Impacts

As Hurricane Idalia approached the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and then the southeast Atlantic coast, the USGS Coastal Change Hazards team produced a series...

USGS forecasts Tropical Storm Idalia may cause significant coastal change along western Florida

A new U.S. Geological Survey coastal change forecast predicts sandy beaches and dunes along Florida’s west coast are likely to see significant impacts...

The USGS provides maps and imagery for hurricane response

The 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season runs from June 1 through November 30. Throughout the season, the U.S. Geological Survey will be providing science ...

The USGS determines the extent of hurricane-induced flooding, which can help communities better prepare for future floods

The usgs estimates potential spread of invasive species carried by hurricane-induced flooding, the usgs collects hurricane induced flood data along the coast and far inland, usgs science can inform communities of the coastal change hurricanes may bring, the usgs collects critical information about storm tides, one of the most serious hurricane threats to people and infrastructure, the 2023 atlantic hurricane season is here, spcmsc scientists will conduct sediment sampling at the chandeleur islands, la.

SPCMSC USGS scientists Julie Bernier, Nancy DeWitt, Andy Farmer, Rose Palermo, and Erin Lyons (Cherokee Nation Systems Solutions) will travel to the...

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Intensification of Hurricane Sally (2020) over the Mississippi River plume

Published: February 15, 2024

Research topics

Category 6? Climate-boosted hurricanes push scientists to rethink classifications

A woman walks through the rubble.

Stronger and more destructive hurricanes fueled by climate change may require a rethinking of how storms are classified, according to a new study that suggests adding a Category 6 for ranking them to better convey damaging wind speeds .

The research, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , examined whether the existing Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which ranks hurricanes from 1 to 5 based on a storm’s maximum sustained wind speed, will be sufficient enough to communicate the dangers of more intense storms.

“Our motivation is to reconsider how the open-endedness of the Saffir-Simpson Scale can lead to underestimation of risk, and, in particular, how this underestimation becomes increasingly problematic in a warming world,” Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and one of the study’s authors, said in a statement .

At the low end of the Saffir-Simpson scale, Category 1 describes wind speeds of 74 to 95 mph. At the other extreme, Category 5 is used for storms with wind speeds of 158 mph or greater.

Nestor Serrano walks on the upstairs level of his home in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, in 2017 after the walls were blown off in Hurricane Maria.

Multiple studies have found that while climate change is not expected to increase the number of hurricanes that strike each year, warmer ocean temperatures  will strengthen th os e that do form . A warmer atmosphere can also hold more moisture, which means these storms can produce heavier rainfall and catastrophic flooding.

As such, the planet can expect more intense storms so long as global warming continues.

In their study, the researchers looked at hurricanes from 1980 to 2021 and found that five storms in those last nine years had peak winds greater than 192 mph. The scientists argued that these hurricanes could have been classified as Category 6 storms.

The study also used models to examine how different climate scenarios could affect hurricanes and other major storms around the world. They found that if the planet warms 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the risk of Category 6 storms could double in the Gulf of Mexico, a region that is already prone to strong hurricanes . Southeast Asia and the Philippines are also among the regions that would face similarly high threats from intensified storms, the researchers found.

“Even under the relatively low global warming targets of the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to just 1.5 [degrees] C above preindustrial temperatures by the end of this century, the increased chances of Category 6 storms are substantial in these simulations,” Wehner said in the statement.

The findings add to ongoing debates about how to better communicate to the public the threats of extreme weather events and the ways that climate change can multiply them.

Scientists have known, for instance, that the Saffir-Simpson scale fails to convey some of the most destructive and potentially deadly aspects of a hurricane, such as storm surge, rainfall and flooding.

“While adding a 6th category to the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale would not solve that issue, it could raise awareness about the perils of the increased risk of major hurricanes due to global warming,” study co-author James Kossin, a climate scientist and distinguished science adviser at First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group, said in a statement.

The National Hurricane Center announced Tuesday that it will begin issuing a new experimental forecast this summer for tropical storms, updating their existing cone graphics that show a storm’s potential track. The new forecasts will include inland tropical storm and hurricane watches and warnings that are in effect, in a bid to better convey inland wind risks during extreme weather events, the agency said.

hurricane research article

Denise Chow is a reporter for NBC News Science focused on general science and climate change.

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A view of Hurricane Patricia from the International Space Station.

Hurricanes becoming so strong that new category needed, study says

Scientists propose new category 6 rating to classify ‘mega-hurricanes’, becoming more likely due to climate crisis

Hurricanes are becoming so strong due to the climate crisis that the classification of them should be expanded to include a “category 6” storm, furthering the scale from the standard 1 to 5, according to a new study.

Over the past decade, five storms would have been classed at this new category 6 strength, researchers said, which would include all hurricanes with sustained winds of 192mph or more. Such mega-hurricanes are becoming more likely due to global heating, studies have found, due to the warming of the oceans and atmosphere.

Michael Wehner, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US, said that “192mph is probably faster than most Ferraris, it’s hard to even imagine”. He has proposed the new category 6 alongside another researcher, James Kossin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Being caught in that sort of hurricane would be bad. Very bad.”

The new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , proposes an extension to the widely used Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale , which was developed in the early 1970s by Herbert Saffir, a civil engineer, and Robert Simpson, a meteorologist who was the director of the US National Hurricane Center.

The scale classifies any hurricane with a sustained maximum wind speed of 74mph or more to be a category 1 event, with the scale rising the faster the winds. Category 3 and above is considered to include major hurricanes that risk severe damage to property and life, with the strongest, category 5, including all storms that are 157mph or more.

Category 5 storms have caused spectacular damage in recent years – such as Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of New Orleans in 2005 and Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact upon Puerto Rico in 2017 – but the new study argues there is now a class of even more extreme storms that demands its own category.

They include Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines in 2013, and Hurricane Patricia, which reached a top speed of 215mph when it formed near Mexico in 2015.

“There haven’t been any in the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico yet but they have conditions conducive to a category 6, it’s just luck that there hasn’t been one yet,” said Wehner. “I hope it won’t happen, but it’s just a roll of the dice. We know that these storms have already gotten more intense, and will continue to do so.”

While the total number of hurricanes is not rising due to the climate crisis, researchers have found that the intensity of major storms has notably increased during the four-decade satellite record of hurricanes. A super-heated ocean is providing extra energy to rapidly intensify hurricanes, aided by a warmer, moisture-laden atmosphere.

Wehner said the Saffir-Simpson scale was an imperfect measure of the dangers posed to people by a hurricane, which mostly come via severe rainfall and coastal flooding rather than the strong winds themselves, but that a category 6 would highlight the heightened risks brought by the climate crisis. “Our main purpose is to raise awareness that climate change is affecting the most intense storms,” he said.

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The systems used to chart the world around us have been previously tweaked to reflect the rapid changes of the modern era. Australia’s bureau of meteorology added a new colour – purple – to its weather maps to account for ferocious heat, while just last week the US government’s Coral Reef Watch programme added three new alert categories to capture the increasing heat stress suffered by corals.

There is no indication there will soon be hurricanes officially classified as category 6, however. The US National Hurricane Center did not respond to a request for comment about the new study.

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Atlantic Hurricanes Are Getting Stronger, Faster, Study Finds

The chance that a storm will get much more dangerous in less than a day has more than doubled over the past few decades.

An aerial image of Earth showing a while spiral that is Hurricane Maria, blue ocean, and a section of green land.

By Delger Erdenesanaa

Hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean are now twice as likely to grow from a weak storm into a major Category 3 or higher hurricane within just 24 hours, according to a study published Thursday.

“These findings should serve as an urgent warning,” said Andra Garner, an assistant professor of environmental science at Rowan University and the author of the new paper.

Many of the costliest climate-related disasters to strike the United States in recent years have been hurricanes that intensified unusually quickly. Hurricane Maria , which killed more than 3,000 people in Puerto Rico and neighboring islands in 2017, strengthened from a Category 1 to Category 5 hurricane in less than 24 hours before making landfall.

When hurricanes intensify so quickly, it becomes more difficult to forecast how severely places will be affected. In the worst cases, officials may be left without time to order evacuations.

This new study , which appeared in the journal Scientific Reports, adds to a growing body of evidence that rapid-onset major hurricanes are becoming more likely.

From 2001 to 2020, Dr. Garner found that tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean had an 8 percent chance of strengthening from a Category 1 or lower storm into a Category 3 or higher hurricane within 24 hours. By comparison, from 1970 to 1990, similar storms had only a 3 percent chance of strengthening so much, so rapidly.

Hurricane categories, which range from 1 to 5, are determined by the storms’ wind speed. All are dangerous, but storms rated Category 3 and above — with wind speeds over 110 miles per hour — are considered “major” hurricanes.

Tropical storms form when warm ocean water evaporates into the atmosphere. The storms gather their wind power in large part from the difference in temperature between the surface of the ocean and the cooler upper atmosphere. That’s why the North Atlantic hurricane season runs from June through November: It’s the time of year when the water is warmest.

And ocean temperatures are rising.

Globally, oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the extra heat trapped on the planet’s surface by greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1850, the global average sea surface temperature has risen by about 0.9 degrees Celsius .

“Without limiting future warming, this is a trend that we could expect to continue to get more extreme,” Dr. Garner said.

Dr. Garner examined historical data from the National Hurricane Center using a variety of statistical analyses on recorded wind speeds of all tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean between 1970 and 2020. She found consistent increases over time in the likelihood of storms to grow quickly.

She also found smaller regional differences within the Atlantic Ocean. There was more rapid intensification of storms along the east coast of the United States, in the southern Caribbean, and in the eastern Atlantic from 2001 to 2020 compared with 1970 to 1990. In the Gulf of Mexico, however, there is less rapid intensification now compared with previous years.

This paper confirms previous studies on hurricane intensity in the Atlantic Ocean. The research is “converging,” said Kerry Emanuel, a professor emeritus of atmospheric science at M.I.T. who conducted early research on this topic , and wasn’t involved in Dr. Garner’s study.

Dr. Emanuel cautioned, however, that climate change from greenhouse gas emissions may not be the only factor contributing to a warmer northern Atlantic and changing hurricane behavior.

Decreased sulfate aerosol pollution following clean-air regulations in the United States and Europe may also affect storms. This type of pollution, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels but distinct from greenhouse gases, reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere and cools the Earth slightly. Dr. Emanuel suggested that more global studies are needed to separate the influence of global climate change from aerosol levels and other local factors specific to the Atlantic.

Even so, “the physics is super clear that as you warm the globe, you raise the thermodynamic potential for hurricanes,” he said.

Dr. Emanuel also emphasized the real-world importance of this research. The rapid intensification of hurricanes is “the forecaster’s nightmare,” he said. “You go to bed, figuratively speaking, at 10 at night, and there’s a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico. And you wake up the next morning and it’s a Cat 4, eight hours from landfall. And now you don’t have time to evacuate anybody, to warn them.”

Although this study isn’t global, it’s one of the most robust so far, said Karthik Balaguru, a climate and data scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who also studies hurricanes and wasn’t involved in Dr. Garner’s research. The fact that this finding of more quickly growing storms stayed consistent through multiple kinds of statistical analyses shows there’s a real trend in the data, Dr. Balaguru said.

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Hurricanes are the most powerful weather event on Earth. NASA’s expertise in space and scientific exploration contributes to essential services provided to the American people by other federal agencies, such as hurricane weather forecasting.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Hurricane Center (NHC) use a variety of tools to predict these storms’ paths. These scientists need a wealth of data to accurately forecast hurricanes. NASA satellites, computer modeling, instruments, aircraft and field missions contribute to this mix of information to give scientists a better understanding of these storms.

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NASA’s Research Role

NASA’s role as a research agency is to bring new types of observational capabilities and analytical tools to learn about the fundamental processes that drive hurricanes and work to help incorporate that data into forecasts. NASA collaborates with its interagency partners so that the nation benefits from our respective capabilities.

“Before we had satellites and aircraft, hurricanes would destroy entire cities, like the Labor Day Hurricane in Key West back in 1935,” said Gail Skofronick-Jackson, the project scientist for NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “You would have no idea if a hurricane was coming until it was too late.”

Hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean can form when sub-Saharan thunderstorms travel westward with areas of lower pressure. These troughs are known as African Easterly Waves. Warm, moist air rises within the storm clouds, drawing air into the thunderstorms. Like an ice skater pulling in her arms to increase her spin, this inward moving air increases the rotation of the air within the storm cloud. Moving across the warm Atlantic, this cycle repeats on a daily basis, and, with a favorable environment, potentially accelerates to create a monstrous vortex powered by oceanic heat.

NASA uses an arsenal of instruments to learn more about how these storms progress as they form. These devices orbit Earth on a fleet of spacecraft, including Aqua, Terra, the Global Precipitation Measurement core observatory, NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite, Calipso , Jason-2 and CloudSat .

“There are typically multiple instruments on every spacecraft with various purposes that often complement each other,” said Eric Moyer, the Earth science operations manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We can see the progression of a storm from one day to the next using the Terra and Aqua satellites —a morning and afternoon view of every storm system, every day.”

What NASA Studies

These instruments analyze different aspects of these storms, such as rainfall rates, surface wind speed, cloud heights, ocean heat and environmental temperature and humidity. Observing these factors helps identify the potential for storm formation or intensification. Similarly, the data allows meteorologists to better predict where, when and how hard hurricanes will strike land.

NASA’s RapidScat instrument that flies aboard the International Space Station measures surface winds over the ocean and is used to gather data on tropical cyclones. This can show where in a hurricane the strongest winds occur. RapidScat continues a long satellite record of these observations that began with NASA’s QuikScat satellite.

Scientists must completely understand a hurricane to predict its trajectory and strength. This means meteorologists must peer inside the cloud itself.

“Looking at the cloud structure can help us understand the storm’s structure and location, which improves our forecasts,” said Michael Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center. “We heavily rely on the passive microwave imagers from satellites to see what is happening in the core of the storm.”

Passive microwave imagers aboard NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement and NASA-NOAA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership missions can peer through cloud canopies, allowing scientists to observe where the water is churning in the clouds.

“Just like a doctor using x-rays to understand what’s happening in the human body, our radiometers can pierce the clouds and understand the cyclone’s structure,” Skofronick-Jackson said. “We learn about the amount of liquid water and falling snow in the cloud. Then we know how much water may fall out over land and cause floods.”

“Having satellites to watch the oceans is critical, and that will never change,” Skofronick-Jackson said. “Radars on Earth can only see a certain distance out in the ocean, so without spacecraft, you would need radars on every ship. With satellite data informing computer models, we can predict the storms’ paths, to the point where regions only need to evacuate half as much coastline as before. That’s important, because it costs a lot of money to pack up, move to a hotel and close down businesses.”

Computer Modeling

Computer modeling is another powerful NASA research tool. 

NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, or GMAO works to improve the understanding of hurricanes and assess models and procedures for quality. GMAO helps to identify information that was missing and determines what services could be added to help future investigation and prediction of hurricane systems.

As NASA launches more sophisticated Earth-observing instruments, teams produce models with higher and higher resolutions, the ability to ingest such data, or the data assimilation procedure, increases. Each new instrument provides scientists and modelers a closer and more varied look at tropical cyclones. The higher the resolution of models and the capability of data assimilation systems, the easier it is to exploit data from satellite-borne instruments and to determine a hurricane’s intensity and size in terms of things such as the wind field and cloud extent.

Airborne Missions

NASA also conducts field missions to study hurricanes. With an arsenal of instruments, ranging from radiometers that read moisture levels; lidars that measure aerosols, moisture, and winds; dropsonde systems to measure high-resolution profiles of temperature, pressure, moisture, and winds; to Doppler radar systems to map the 3-D precipitation and winds within storms. These instruments monitor the structure and environment of hurricanes and tropical storms as they evolve.

The most recent NASA field mission to study hurricanes was the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel or HS3 . For three consecutive years, the HS3 mission investigated the processes that underlie hurricane formation and intensity change in the Atlantic Ocean basin. The mission used the Global Hawk, a high-altitude long-endurance aircraft capable of flights of 26 hours at altitudes above 55,000 ft. Flying from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the uninhabited Global Hawks could cover the entire Atlantic Ocean, enabling measurements of storms at early stages in the central or eastern Atlantic or spending 12-18 hours over storms in the western Atlantic.

A Future Mission

In 2016, NASA is launching the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, a constellation of eight small satellites. CYGNSS will probe the inner core of hurricanes in such detail to better understand their rapid intensification. One advantage of CYGNSS is that it can get frequent measurements within storms.  This allows CYGNSS to make accurate measurements of ocean surface winds both in and near the eye of the storm throughout the lifecycle of tropical cyclones. The goal is to improve hurricane intensity forecasts.

NASA data and research allows scientists to observe the fundamental processes that drive hurricanes. Meteorologists incorporate this satellite, aircraft and computer modeling data into forecasts in the United States and around the world.

For more on NASA’s hurricane observations and research, visit:

www.nasa.gov/hurricane

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Hurricane Research Division

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Hurricane Research

Dynamics and physics.

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Satellite images from the GOES satellite shows the Saharan Air Layer moving across Africa towards the Atlantic Basin.

Saharan Air Layer

Effects on Atlantic Tropical Cyclones

hurricane research article

Extratropical Transition

Forecasting Impacts in Midlatitudes

Doppler Winds Thumbnail. Photo Credit: NOAA.

Real-Time Doppler Winds

Analyzing & Delivering Data in “Real-Time”

Photo of the NASA Global Hawk in the hangar going out into a bright pink sunset. Photo Credit, NOAA.

Observing System Experiments

Using Aircraft Data

Hurricane Field Program

Experiments, flight plans and, operational maps and information for 2023, hurricane data, previous years data by storm.

View previous years' data by storm on our Data Page. Includes wind speed, temperature and humidity profiles, radar and visuals, and more.

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Graphical products for experimental NOAA models and operational models.

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All encompassing data suite includes wind speed, temperature and humidity profiles, radar and visuals, and more.

Research Capability & Expertise

Each WP-3D aircraft has three radars: nose, lower fuselage, and tail. The nose radar (a solid-state C-band radar with a 5° circular beam) is used strictly for flight safety and is not recorded for research purposes. The lower fuselage and tail radars are used for operational and research purposes. The G-IV aircraft has a nose and a tail radar too.

Expendables Dropwindsondes are deployed from the aircraft and drift down on a parachute measuring vertical profiles of pressure, temperature, humidity and wind as they fall. They are released from the both the WP-3D and G-IV aircraft over data-sparse oceanic regions. Airborne eXpendable BathyThermographs (AXBT) Airborne eXpendable Current Profilers (AXCP) Airborne eXpendable Conductivity Temperature and Depth probes (AXCTD) Drifting buoys

Oceanographic instruments may be deployed from the WP-3D aircraft either from external chutes using explosive cads or from an internal drop chute. They activate upon hitting the ocean surface and radio sea temperature, salinity, and current information back to computers aboard the aircraft.

Visit Expendables Page

Remote Sensing

Among the suite of airborne remote sensing instruments available on the WP-3D aircraft for the purpose of measuring surface winds in and around tropical cyclones are the Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer and the C-band scatterometer (C-SCAT). The C-SCAT conically scans the ocean surfaceobtaining backscatter measurements from 20° to 50° off nadir

C-Band Scatterometer (C-SCAT) The C-SCAT antenna is a microstrip phased array whose main lobe can be pointed at 20°, 30°, 40°, and 50° off nadir. The antenna is rotated in azimuth at 30 rpm. Thus, conical scans of the ocean surface are repeated every 2 s (0.25 km at 125 m/s ground speed).

Data assimilation is a technique by which numerical model data and observations are combined to obtain an analysis that best represents the state of the atmospheric phenomena of interest. At HRD, the focus is on the utilization of a wide range of observations for the state analysis of tropical systems and their near environments to study their structure and physical/dynamical processes, and to improve numerical forecasts. Research includes the development and application of a state-of-the-art ensemble-based data assimilation system (the Hurricane Ensemble Data Assimilation System – HEDAS) with the operational Hurricane Weather Research and Forecast model, using airborne, satellite and other observations. In parallel, Observing System Simulation Experiments are conducted for the systematic evaluation of proposed observational platforms geared toward the better sampling of tropical weather systems.

AOML developed the high-resolution HWRF model, the first 3 km-resolution regional model to be officially adopted and run operationally by the National Hurricane Center at the start of the 2012 hurricane season. This state-of-the-art research involved the following key elements:

High-resolution numerical model developments; Advancements to physical parameterizations for hurricane models based on observations; And above all, advancements in the basic understanding of hurricane processes.

In collaboration with NCEP‘s Environmental Modeling Center, and with the vital support of NOAA‘s Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project (HFIP), we are fully committed for years to come to the development and further advancement of NOAA‘s HWRF modeling system. A basin-sale version of the HWRF model is now in transition to operations. Visit the Hurricane Modeling and Prediction page to learn more.

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12 Days of AOML Research

December 20, 2023

Happy Holidays to all!  As we close out 2023, join us as we look back at some of our top research highlights this year! From responding to heat waves to setting records and launching new tech, our dedicated team continues to push the boundary in an effort to support NOAA’s mission to build a climate-ready […]

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NOAA Pioneers New Ways to Advance Hurricane Forecasting

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Improvements in Forecasting, Weather, Floods and Hurricanes

Providing research to make forecasts better.

This overview report includes work on the Hurricane Analysis and Forecasting System (HAFS) , a set of moving, high-resolution nests around tropical cyclones in the global weather model, and the  AOML Hurricane Model Viewer .

hurricane research article

Featured Publication

High-Definition Hurricanes: Improving Forecasts with Storm-Following Nests: Image of the scientific paper

Alaka Jr, G. J., Zhang, X., & Gopalakrishnan, S. G. (2022). High-definition hurricanes: improving forecasts with storm-following nests.  Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society ,  103 (3), E680-E703.

Abstract: To forecast tropical cyclone (TC) intensity and structure changes with fidelity, numerical weather prediction models must be “high definition,” i.e., horizontal grid spacing ≤ 3 km, so that they permit clouds and convection and resolve sharp gradients of momentum and moisture in the eyewall and rainbands. Storm-following nests are computationally efficient at fine resolutions, providing a practical approach to improve TC intensity forecasts. Under the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project, the operational Hurricane Weather Research and Forecasting (HWRF) system was developed to include telescopic, storm-following nests for a single TC per model integration.

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High-Definition Hurricanes: Improving Forecasts with Storm-Following Nests

High-Definition Hurricanes: Improving Forecasts with Storm-Following Nests: Image of the scientific paper

Looking for scientific literature? Visit our Publication Database.

Dropsondes Measure Important Atmospheric Conditions

Airborne radar.

As our Hurricane Hunter Scientists make passes through the storm, they release small sensor packages on parachutes called dropsondes. These instruments provide measurements of temperature, pressure, humidity and wind as they descend through the storm. See more of our videos on YouTube.

Dropsonde Animation Image of the P-3. Photo Credit: NOAA.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hurricanes

Why don't nuclear weapons destroy hurricanes.

Radioactive fallout from such an operation would far outweigh the benefits and may not alter the storm.  Additionally, the amount of energy that a storm produces far outweighs the energy produced by one nuclear weapon.

How Much Energy is Released from a Hurricane?

The energy released from a hurricane can be explained in two ways: the total amount of energy released by the condensation of water droplets (latent heat), or the amount of kinetic energy generated to maintain the strong, swirling winds of a hurricane. The vast majority of the latent heat released is used to drive the convection of a storm, but the total energy released from condensation is 200 times the world-wide electrical generating capacity, or 6.0 x 10 14  watts per day. If you measure the total kinetic energy instead, it comes out to about 1.5 x 10 12  watts per day, or ½ of the world-wide electrical generating capacity. It would seem that although wind energy seems the most obvious energetic process, it is actually the latent release of heat that feeds a hurricane’s momentum.

What Causes Tropical Cyclones?

In addition to hurricane-favorable conditions such as temperature and humidity, many repeating atmospheric phenomenon contribute to causing and intensifying tropical cyclones. For example, African Easterly Waves are winds in the lower troposphere (ocean surface to 3 miles above) that travel from Africa at speeds of about 3mph westward as a result of the African Easterly Jet. These winds are seen from April until November. About 85% of intense hurricanes and about 60% of smaller storms have their origin in African Easterly waves.

The Saharan Air Layer is another significant seeding phenomenon for tropical storms.  It is a mass of dry, mineral-rich, dusty air that forms over the Sahara from late spring to early fall and moves over the tropical North Atlantic every 3-5 days at speeds of 22-55mph (10-25 meters per second). The air mass is 1-2 miles deep, exists in the lower troposphere, and can be as wide as the continental US. These air masses have significant moderating impacts on tropical cyclone intensity and formation because the dry, intense air can both deprive the storm of moisture and interfere with its convection by increasing the wind shear.

Many tropical cyclones form due to these larger scale atmospheric factors. Hurricanes that form fairly close in our basin are called Cape Verde hurricanes, named for the location where they are formed. Cape Verde origin hurricanes can be up to five per year, with an average of around two.

Why are Tropical Cyclones Always Worse on the Right Side?

If a hurricane is moving to the west, the right side would be to the north of the storm, if it is heading north, then the right side would be to the east of the storm. The movement of a hurricane can be broken into two parts- the spiral movement and its forward movement. If the hurricane is moving forward, the side of the spiral with winds parallel and facing forward in the direction of movement will go faster, because you are adding two velocities together. The side of the spiral parallel to the movement, but going in the opposite direction will be slower, because you must subtract the velocity moving away (backwards) from the forward velocity.

For example, a hurricane with 90mph winds moving at 10mph would have a 100mph wind speed on the right (forward-moving) side and 80 mph on the side with the backward motion.

How are Hurricanes Named?

During the 19th century, hurricane names were inspired by everything from saints to wives to unpopular politicians. In 1978, it was agreed that the National Hurricane Center would use alternating men and women’s names following the practice adopted by Australia’s bureau of Meteorology three years earlier in 1975.

Today, a list of potential names is published by the United Nations World Meteorological Organization for the Atlantic basin. These names extend into 2023, and the list repeats every seventh year. If a particularly damaging storm occurs, the name of that storm is retired. Storms retired in 2017 include Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate. If there are more storms than names on the list in a given season, the National Hurricane Center will name them using the Greek alphabet. Lastly, if a storm happens to move across basins, it keeps the original name. The only time it is renamed if it dissipates to a tropical disturbance and reforms.

With Hurricane Hunters Dr. Frank Marks & Commander Justin Kibbey

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Scientists and Hurricane Hunters Paul Reasor and Robert Rogers preparing for flight into Hurricane Barry. Photo Credit, NOAA AOML.

The Global Hawk unmanned aircraft can fly continuously for 24 hours in a storm, collecting critical atmospheric data. Photo Credit, NOAA AOML.

Sunrise photo above the clouds from a hurricane hunter aircraft. Photo Credit, NOAA AOML.

Frank Marks Takes a Selfie with Ms. Piggy- The P3 aircraft have nicknames. This one is called Miss Piggy after one of Jim Henson’s The Muppets character. Photo Credit, NOAA AOML.

Photo of the P3 flying science lab on the tarmac ready for its next flight. Photo Credit, NOAA AOML.

Scientist drops scientific instruments into the hurricane below to take measurements that improve our forecasts. Photo Credit, NOAA AOML.

The eye of a hurricane as seen by a P3 aircraft. Photo Credit, NOAA AOML.

Hurricane researchers Paul Reasor (L) and Rob Rogers (R) are hard at work analyzing data during their flight into Tropical Storm Barry. Photo Credit: NOAA.

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Hurricane Idalia shows nature may provide the best shoreline protection

hurricane research article

On Cedar Key, researchers from the University of Florida have brought in sand, put in marsh plants and used artificial reefs to encourage the growth of oyster beds offshore. Octavio Jones for NPR hide caption

On Cedar Key, researchers from the University of Florida have brought in sand, put in marsh plants and used artificial reefs to encourage the growth of oyster beds offshore.

CEDAR KEY, Fla. — When Hurricane Idalia slammed into Florida's Gulf Coast in August, one of the hardest hit areas was Cedar Key .

A nearly 7-foot storm surge battered the small fishing community , flooding a third of the buildings on the island. In a new report , the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says Idalia caused an estimated $3.6 billion in damage, most of it in Florida's Big Bend region. But on Cedar Key, when the water receded, scientists found some good news amid all the damage.

Nature-based "living shoreline" projects built to protect roads, buildings and other structures were relatively undamaged.

Hurricane Idalia's aftermath: Florida rushes to restore power and clear debris

Hurricane Idalia's aftermath: Florida rushes to restore power and clear debris

On Cedar Key over the past several years, a team of researchers from the University of Florida has used a variety of tools to mimic nature. Instead of building seawalls and jetties, they've brought in sand, put in marsh plants and used artificial reefs to encourage the growth of oyster beds offshore.

hurricane research article

Near Airport Road on Cedar Key, large concrete reef ball structures have been installed to break waves and encourage oysters. Octavio Jones for NPR hide caption

Near Airport Road on Cedar Key, large concrete reef ball structures have been installed to break waves and encourage oysters.

People who live on the tiny island year-round are no strangers to storm surge and flooding . Because it's so low and close to the water , the town sees flooding during even small storms. In 2016, Hurricane Hermine brought then-record storm surge and flooding. Savanna Barry , an extension agent and researcher with the University of Florida, says that with that history, the devastation of Hurricane Idalia wasn't unexpected. "Shocking's not really the right word, but certainly overwhelming," she says. "But we were happy to see the living shorelines had relatively little damage."

hurricane research article

Extension agent and University of Florida researcher Savanna Barry helps oversee the newest living shoreline project in Cedar Key near G Street. Octavio Jones for NPR hide caption

Extension agent and University of Florida researcher Savanna Barry helps oversee the newest living shoreline project in Cedar Key near G Street.

Near the island's western edge recently, Barry checked up on one of the living shoreline projects. Just a day before this visit, a storm system in the Gulf brought high winds, damaging surf and minor flooding to this part of the island. "But you see this debris line, how it bends towards this vegetated area," Barry says. "That's really showing you how this is affecting that wave power."

That's what living shorelines do. They don't reduce the height of a storm surge or stop the waves from coming ashore. But they absorb and reduce the energy of incoming waves. Barry says that provides significant protection to roads, buildings and other structures onshore. "Even if they do still get flooded, they may not get as battered by wave energy," she says.

hurricane research article

After Hurricane Idalia, researchers found that living shoreline projects helped protect buildings on Cedar Key like this hotel by reducing incoming wave energy by 15% to 20%. Octavio Jones for NPR hide caption

After Hurricane Idalia, researchers found that living shoreline projects helped protect buildings on Cedar Key like this hotel by reducing incoming wave energy by 15% to 20%.

Three living shoreline projects have been created in Cedar Key. In August, as Hurricane Idalia strengthened in the Gulf and headed toward Florida, researchers placed wave gauges onshore and offshore to monitor the height and power of the storm surge. The gauges showed the living shorelines significantly reduced the height and power of the waves reaching the shore.

hurricane research article

Scientists and volunteers plant small plugs of marsh grass that, if left undisturbed for a few years, grow into a dense "living shoreline." Octavio Jones for NPR hide caption

Scientists and volunteers plant small plugs of marsh grass that, if left undisturbed for a few years, grow into a dense "living shoreline."

Barry says, "We saw that even at the highest water levels, this project was reducing incoming wave energies between 15 and 20%."

And unlike docks, seawalls and other human-made structures, University of Florida wetlands ecologist Mark Clark says their projects came though the hurricane largely unscathed. "When the water receded and we looked at these shorelines," he says, "they were minimally impacted by the actual event."

Throughout Cedar Key, nearly six months after the storm, buildings and docks are being repaired and rebuilt. On the living shorelines, nature is doing the repairs as oyster reefs repopulate and mangroves and marsh grasses regrow.

hurricane research article

Marsh grasses help armor the shoreline with a dense root system that holds onto the soil. As water moves over it, the grass bends and flexes, absorbing wave energy. Octavio Jones for NPR hide caption

Marsh grasses help armor the shoreline with a dense root system that holds onto the soil. As water moves over it, the grass bends and flexes, absorbing wave energy.

Marsh grasses, Barry says, play a key role in protecting the shore. As waves break over them, she says the dense root systems hold on to the soil. "They create kind of an armoring of their own underneath the soil with a very, very dense web," she says. "Then also, as the water moves across them, they bend and flex. That bending and flexing is absorbing wave energy."

Marsh grasses also trap new sand, slowly increasing the elevation. At another living shoreline project on Cedar Key, that increased elevation helped protect an important road from being washed out in Idalia — something that had happened in a previous storm.

hurricane research article

There's growing public support for nature-based projects in Cedar Key. Some private landowners have begun installing living shoreline projects on their properties. Octavio Jones for NPR hide caption

There's growing public support for nature-based projects in Cedar Key. Some private landowners have begun installing living shoreline projects on their properties.

Living shorelines have been advocated for decades as an alternative to human-made shore-hardening measures. Sea walls, common in most coastal areas, cost more in the long run. They often fail when they're overtopped in storms. And they increase coastal erosion in adjacent areas that don't have them.

hurricane research article

Rebuilding is still underway on Dock Street in Cedar Key. Businesses there took some of the worst damage in Hurricane Idalia. Octavio Jones for NPR hide caption

Rebuilding is still underway on Dock Street in Cedar Key. Businesses there took some of the worst damage in Hurricane Idalia.

Living shoreline projects are more resilient. They improve water quality and help provide habitat for plants and sea life. But in Florida and elsewhere, Barry says living shorelines have been slow to catch on. "It may be hard for some people to believe that nature can be a defense," she says. "I ... think it's just human nature to trust a wall more than something else."

In Cedar Key, because residents live so close to the water, Barry says there's public support for these nature-based projects. Working with the town, the University of Florida developed a master plan to manage the island's shoreline. And some private landowners have begun installing living shoreline projects on their properties.

hurricane research article

On Cedar Key, because it's so low and close to the water, the town sees flooding in even small storms. A third of the buildings on the island were flooded in Hurricane Idalia. Octavio Jones for NPR hide caption

On Cedar Key, because it's so low and close to the water, the town sees flooding in even small storms. A third of the buildings on the island were flooded in Hurricane Idalia.

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  • 09 September 2021

Hurricane Ida forces Louisiana researchers to rethink their future

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When Hurricane Ida tore through New Orleans more than a week ago, researchers there were relieved that the category-4 storm didn’t entirely flood the city. Its flood-regulating levee system, fortified after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago, seemed to hold. What took them by surprise was that Ida ravaged Louisiana’s power grid, 30% of which has yet to be restored — leaving residents to bake in the heat, universities closed and researchers struggling to preserve samples and keep projects running.

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Here’s what we know about hurricanes and climate change

More rainfall and intensifying storms are hallmarks of rising temperatures, but questions remain about some links between extreme storms and climate change.

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MIT Technology Review Explains: Let our writers untangle the complex, messy world of technology to help you understand what's coming next.  You can read more here.

It’s now possible to link climate change to all kinds of extreme weather, from droughts to flooding to wildfires. 

Hurricanes are no exception—scientists have found that warming temperatures are causing stronger and less predictable storms. That’s a worry, because hurricanes are already among the most deadly and destructive extreme weather events around the world. In the US alone, three hurricanes each caused over $1 billion in damages in 2022. In a warming world, we can expect the totals to rise.

But the relationship between climate change and hurricanes is more complicated than most people realize. Here’s what we know, and—as Hurricane Idalia batters the Florida coast—what to expect from the storms to come.

Are hurricanes getting more common?

It might seem that there are far more storms than in the past, but we don’t really know for sure. 

That’s because historical records are limited, with little reliable data more than a few decades old, says Kerry Emanuel , professor emeritus in atmospheric science at MIT. So it’s tough to draw conclusions about how the frequency of tropical cyclones (the umbrella term for storms that are called hurricanes, cyclones, or typhoons, depending on the region) is changing over time. 

The best data comes from the North Atlantic region, Emanuel says, and it does appear that there are more hurricanes there than there used to be. Globally, though, some research suggests that the total number of tropical cyclones has gone down over the past few decades.

Scientists disagree on whether cyclogenesis, or storm formation, has changed over time and whether it might be affected by climate change in the future. Some climate models suggest that climate change will increase the total number of storms that form, while others suggest the opposite, says Karthik Balaguru , a climate and data scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Are hurricanes getting stronger?

Globally, hurricanes have gotten stronger on average in the last four decades, and Emanuel says that to judge from what we know about climate change, the trend is likely to continue.

In one study , researchers examined satellite images from between 1979 and 2017 and found that an increasing fraction of storms reached the status of a major hurricane, defined as one with winds of over 110 miles per hour.

This trend of stronger storms fits with theoretical research going back to the 1980s from Emanuel and other climate scientists, who predicted that warming oceans would cause stronger hurricanes. Warming water provides more energy to storms, resulting in increased wind speeds.

As temperatures rise, “you’re going to load the dice toward these higher-end events,” says Phil Klotzbach , an atmospheric scientist and hurricane forecasting expert at Colorado State University. 

That fits with recent research finding that hurricanes in the North Atlantic are intensifying more quickly , meaning they gain more wind speed as they move across the warming ocean .

The trend is most clear in the North Atlantic, but it also might be applicable around the world— another recent study found a global increase in the number of storms that undergo a very rapid intensification, with wind speeds increasing by 65 miles per hour or more within 24 hours. 

Storms that get stronger quickly, especially close to shore, can be particularly dangerous, since people don’t have much time to prepare or evacuate.

How else does climate change affect hurricanes?

There are “compounding effects” from climate change that could influence hurricanes in the future, Balaguru says. 

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, making storm surges more severe and coastal flooding more likely and damaging. In addition, as air gets warmer it can hold more water, meaning there will be more rain from storms as climate change pushes global temperatures higher. That could all add up to more flooding during hurricanes.

There are other, less-understood ways that climate change might affect storms in the future. Storms are becoming more likely to stall in one place , dumping more rain on concentrated areas, as Hurricane Harvey did in Houston in 2017. Some studies link this effect to climate change too, though the connection is not as certain as others, Balaguru says. Regional changes in atmospheric circulation could also affect which areas are more likely to get hit by storms.

Even as hurricanes are getting stronger and more volatile, our ability to forecast both their path and their intensity has improved in recent years. Advances in supercomputers and AI forecasting could help officials better predict storms and give people more time to prepare. But these gains will only get us so far.

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Hurricanes—Super Storms

When the fiercest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic is bearing down on you, a salvaged armchair under a wood-and-tin awning might seem a poor choice of shelter. But that's where Don E. ("I'd rather keep my last name out of it") was parked when Wilma hit South Florida at 6:30 a.m. last October 24. For Don and a buddy, it was the start of the workday at Jimbo's Place, a ramshackle beer and bait shop down by the water on Miami's Virginia Key. "Once we got out here, it was kind of too late to do anything but ride it out," Don says with a small laugh.

Jimbo's looks like nothing so much as an abandoned shack. But whether through good luck or unexpectedly sound construction, it survived Wilma's fury. Mercifully, the winds had ebbed from 185 miles per hour (297.7 kilometers per hour) at sea to 120 miles per hour (193.1 kilometers per hour) by the time the storm hit, but Wilma still left almost all of South Florida without power. For the next two weeks a generator and donated bags of ice kept Jimbo's open—the only establishment on the key where visitors could be assured of a cold beer and a friendly welcome.

Wilma was a record breaker in a season of unsettling records. Katrina, at the end of August, killed more than a thousand people and left much of New Orleans and the neighboring coast in ruins. The damage exceeded a hundred billion dollars—the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history—and the toll in fractured lives is incalculable. Rita, in September, rivaled Wilma in intensity and ravaged the Gulf Coast through western Louisiana and East Texas.

These three monster storms were part of an unmatched run of Atlantic hurricanes—15 in all. With a total of 27 named tropical storms, 2005 was the first year meteorologists exhausted their preseason list of 21 Atlantic cyclone names and had to dip into the Greek alphabet for the latecomers.

Days after Wilma, one visitor to Jimbo's was already worrying about what future hurricane seasons might bring. Sharan Majumdar, 34, is a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, just across the highway from Jimbo's. He is one of a cadre of scientists trying to understand nature's most powerful storms and more reliably predict their surges, ebbs, and lurching paths from birth to landfall.

( What are hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons ?)

Swatting at sand flies on a warm November night, Majumdar says he can't really blame his fellow patrons at Jimbo's for deciding to stay put during Wilma. Forecasts today can get hurricane tracks wrong by hundreds of miles and wind speeds by tens of miles per hour (16.1 kilometers per hour). As a result, Majumdar says, "people often return after an evacuation to find nothing really happened." The solution, he says, is to improve forecasting through better science. "That's the only way to get people to trust the warnings."

The stakes have never been higher. Population is burgeoning along vulnerable coasts in the U.S., Asia, and the Caribbean. In the southeastern U.S., for example, coastal populations grew more than 50 percent from 1980 to 2003. The North Atlantic hurricane nursery, responding to a natural climate cycle, is experiencing a baby boom that isn't expected to end for a decade or more. And behind it all lurks the grim possibility that global warming is making these storms stronger.

Like all weather, hurricanes are fueled by heat—the heat of sun-drenched tropical seas, which powers the storms by sending warm, moist air rushing toward the frigid upper atmosphere like smoke up a chimney. As surrounding air is sucked in at the base of the storm, Earth's rotation gives it a twist, creating a whorl of rain bands. These whiptails of thunderstorm activity are strongest where they converge in a ring of rising, spinning air, the eyewall, which encloses the cloud-free eye.

Hurricanes (called typhoons in the western Pacific and tropical cyclones in the Indian Ocean) can propel themselves to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) or more, where the rising air finally vents itself in spiraling exhaust jets of cirrus clouds. The largest ever, the 1979 Pacific typhoon Tip, sent gale-force winds across more than 650 miles (965.6 kilometers). Even an average hurricane packs some 1.5 trillion watts of power in its winds—equivalent to about half the world's entire electrical generating capacity.

Starting this great weather engine requires surface waters of 80 degrees or more, moist air, and little wind shear—a difference in wind speed at the surface and aloft that can tear apart a developing hurricane. But those ingredients often produce nothing more than a tropical disturbance—an unremarkable cluster of thunderstorms. "Disturbances look very similar day to day," says David Nolan of the Rosenstiel School, "and then all of a sudden you get a big burst of convection, then within six hours it becomes a depression, then it becomes a hurricane, then it's flooding my apartment." Katrina soaked Nolan's 14th-floor Miami Beach home as the storm crossed Florida on its fateful course to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. "It would be really nice to say what you need to make a hurricane," he adds. "And we really can't do that yet."

One thing was clear in 2005: Conditions were ideal for making hurricanes. From June through November—the official Atlantic hurricane season—bulletins and warnings streamed from the National Hurricane Center in Miami. But the most telling moment of the season came on November 29, one day before its official end, when NHC director Max Mayfield and other officials gave a summary report. Even as the officials recited a sobering roll call of power and destruction, the NHC duty forecaster was charting tropical storm Epsilon, just then getting ready to spin itself into yet another hurricane.

Yet 2005 was just a continuation of the upward trend that began in 1995. Because of a tropical climate shift that brought warmer waters and reduced wind shear, the Atlantic has spawned unusual numbers of hurricanes for nine of the past eleven seasons. "We're 11 years into the cycle of high activity and landfall," NOAA meteorologist Gerry Bell says, "but I can't tell you if it will last another ten years, or thirty."

Weather satellites make it easy for meteorologists to keep tabs on hurricanes. But ordinary satellite images show only the cloud tops. Spaceborne infrared sensors can reveal more detail, charting the size and shape of the warm eye, and satellite radar and microwave sensors can map the rain. Hurricane hunter aircraft actually fly right into Atlantic hurricanes. But they only probe conditions at altitudes of several thousand feet, above the worst turbulence, Jack Beven of the NHC says—"not at the surface, where they really matter to people."

Last year, though, scientists flew a robotic aircraft straight into the maelstrom when tropical storm Ophelia was parked off the mid-Atlantic coast. The craft, called Aerosonde, swooped and circled for ten hours, as low as 1,200 feet (365.8 meters), monitoring winds and the flow of heat and moisture from the ocean into the storm.

That foray was a test, but forecasters routinely probe the heart of storms with shorter lived devices called dropsondes. Released from highflying aircraft into hurricanes and the surrounding winds, these instrument-packed tubes descend by parachute. "They take about 15 minutes from 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) to splash," Majumdar says. Along the way, they measure temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind every half second, transmitting it all to the airplane before they hit the water.

By cranking dropsonde data into computer models that can simulate a storm and how it is likely to evolve, researchers have sharpened their forecasts of storm tracks. Three-day forecasts of Atlantic storm positions were off by an average of 440 miles (708.1 kilometers) in the 1970s; by 2005 the average error had dropped to 173 miles (278.4 kilometers). But one-day forecasts were still wide of the mark by an average of 70 miles (112.7 kilometers)—more than enough to keep coastal dwellers second-guessing the experts. The data and models still can't capture storms in enough detail to forecast all of their feints and swerves.

Storm intensity is proving even harder to forecast. Three-day wind-speed forecasts, off by an average of 23 miles per hour (37 kilometers per hour) in the early 1990s, had improved only marginally by 2005. Hurricanes regularly surprise observers with their mood shifts. In a matter of hours, a Category 5 storm (winds over 155 miles per hour [249.4 kilometers per hour]) can fade to a Category 3 (111-130 miles per hour [178.6-209.2 kilometers per hour]), or a mere tropical storm can explode into a killer. "Intensity changes are the things that really hurt people," says NOAA's Bell.

The state of the ocean below a storm explains some intensity shifts. In 1995, tropical storm Opal was inching toward Category 1 status—an entry-level hurricane—as it made its way through the western Gulf of Mexico. Then, in just 14 hours, it surged to Category 4. Satellite readings of the warm sea surface showed nothing unusual. But Nick Shay of the Rosenstiel School and his colleagues discovered that the warm layer wasn't limited to the top few yards of the ocean, as it usually is in the Gulf. Cold water at greater depths acts as a brake on hurricane intensity when the winds churn it to the surface. But Opal had strayed across a pool of warm water extending hundreds of feet down. No matter how hard the wind blew, it stirred up more hurricane fuel, causing the storm to intensify.

The tropical ocean is littered with these deep warm pockets, and their importance was underscored last year by both Katrina and Rita, which shot up to Category 5 when they passed over a deep band of warm Gulf water called the Loop Current. Satellites can detect subsurface warmth by looking for subtle bulges in the sea surface, Shay says. "It's not really rocket science, but here's something that works and improves intensity forecasts by 5 to 15 percent."

Waves, on the other hand, can blunt a storm. Whipped up by a hurricane, they can reach heights of more than a hundred feet (30.5 meters), exerting a drag on the winds that created them. "Heat adds fuel, but waves slow the winds down—they're fighting each other," says Shuyi Chen of the Rosenstiel School, who is collaborating on a powerful new computer model, called the Hurricane Weather and Research Forecasting model, that will simulate the fine details of the interplay between atmosphere, waves, and ocean. "You can get a forecast one to two categories wrong if you don't get the waves right."

Forecasters also need to understand a hurricane's internal workings. Katrina, for example, had grown into a certifiable monster by the morning of Sunday, August 28. Sucking energy from the Loop Current, the storm had screamed from the low end of Category 3 to a peak of 175 miles per hour (281.6 kilometers per hour), well into Category 5, in just 12 hours. As Katrina barreled toward land, the NHC issued an apocalyptic warning: "POTENTIALLY CATASTROPHIC HURRICANE KATRINA MENACING THE NORTHERN GULF COAST."

And then, swiftly and remarkably, the storm took a breather. In satellite images late Sunday, hours before landfall, a huge bite appeared in the southern side of the eyewall. Scientists probing the storm with aircraft and radar in a project called RAINEX worked out what had happened. Katrina's ferocious rain bands had converged toward the heart of the storm, cutting off the eyewall's moisture supply. The old eyewall broke up and a new one formed farther out—an inertial brake that slowed the storm just as a skater's arms slow her spin when she thrusts them outward.

If Katrina had been moving just a little faster, it could have hit land as a Category 5 horror. Instead, thanks to the timing of its eyewall replacement, it sideswiped New Orleans as a milder—but still devastating—Category 3.

For a hurricane, landfall is a death sentence. Once its watery fuel supply has been cut off, the storm inevitably weakens. But that is scant solace to those caught up in its death throes.

From a washed-out stretch of Highway 90 along the Mississippi coast, almost four months after Katrina, the view inland took your breath away. The once lush coastline was still a litter of debris and splintered wood, houses swept from their concrete slabs, ancient spreading oaks stripped of Spanish moss and festooned with rags and tattered plastic.

Water was the primary agent of destruction here. Most hurricane casualties come not from wind but from rain, waves, and, as the scene here made harshly evident, surge—the vast mound of seawater that is pushed in front of the storm, rising 28 feet (8.5 meters) or more in the case of Katrina.

"If you really want to wallop something," says Rick Luettich, a coastal oceanographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "Mississippi and Alabama are pretty close to ideal for maximum storm surge." The coastal waters are shallow, easily plowed up by inrushing winds. Local features matter too, says Luettich, who has worked on a computer program that forecasts surge height. Bays and estuaries can funnel and intensify surge, for example, while barrier islands and wetlands can buffer it.

Coastal development weakens those defenses, as a flight over an adjacent stretch of coast in Louisiana makes clear. Channels crisscross the marshlands, dredged for boat traffic. They let salt water into the back marshes, killing vegetation that holds them together. Add all the dikes and levees that hem in the Mississippi, cutting off the sediment that once replenished the marshes, and the result is staggering: More than 20 percent of Louisiana's coastal wetlands reverted to open water from the 1950s through 2000, 27 square miles (70 square kilometers) every year. The pilot holds up his chart of the tattered coast. "This here is the newest edition," he says. "But it's already out of date."

The full impact of a giant hurricane can't be measured in categories and wind speeds, in damage to homes and ecosystems, or even in lives lost. Those who live through one are never quite the same afterward. Tammy VanderZyl was a manager at Remoulade restaurant in New Orleans. She weathered Katrina in her apartment, then lived on the edge for three weeks with a group of near strangers. "You see things you never thought you would see," she recalls. "I saw whitecaps in my parking lot."

In his recent book, Divine Wind , Kerry Emanuel, a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, intersperses the science and lore of hurricanes with paintings, poems, and literary excerpts inspired by the great storms of history. None is more poignant than the haiku VanderZyl composed after confronting Katrina:

Strong wind blows away

Everything that I am

Where do I go now

For VanderZyl and many of her fellow New Orleanians, the answer to the final line is obvious: right back home. The city will be different now. But leave? "No way," she says. "Things would have to get way worse than this."

Just over the horizon of scientific certainty lies the disturbing possibility that they might. Kerry Emanuel is by all accounts a cautious scientist. For years he believed there was no good evidence that global warming was making hurricanes any stronger. But last year new calculations stopped him in his tracks. When he looked at the total power of tropical cyclones worldwide, he was faced with the conclusion that during the past three decades, the storms have grown almost twice as destructive.

Emanuel's results, published weeks before Katrina, were soon joined by another study, led by Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Webster concluded that the strongest storms—Categories 4 and 5—have become nearly twice as common over 35 years. The likely culprit, both scientists say, is global warming, which is adding hurricane-nurturing heat to the oceans.

It would be easier to find a building undamaged by Katrina in New Orleans' Ninth Ward than to locate a reputable climate scientist who doubts that human activity is warming the Earth. But the claim that hurricanes are growing stronger as a result has set off a tempest of its own. William Gray of Colorado State University, a pioneer hurricane forecaster, has called it "plain wrong." He and the NHC’s Christopher Landsea say Emanuel and Webster's statistics are fuzzy and that data on past storms can't be trusted. Until weather satellites became common in the 1970s, many tropical storms at sea went unrecorded, and since then changes in sensing technology have made it difficult to compare hurricane strengths.

Emanuel agrees that the data aren't perfect. "But this is an important issue," he says, "and the only way to get a better answer would be to have a longer record of reliable data," which would make any trends stand out.

To improve the record, Landsea has been analyzing hurricanes back to the mid-1800s, trying to gauge their intensity from accounts of storm surge and wind damage. Other researchers are looking for signs of past hurricanes at the bottom of coastal lakes, where the strongest storms deposited layers of windblown beach sand, and in the wood of old trees from coastal forests. Rainwater from hurricanes is minutely lighter than regular rain, so a tree drenched by passing hurricanes preserves a subtle record of each storm in its growth rings.

While the debates go on, hurricanes will continue to strike increasingly populous coasts. That, says Landsea, is reason enough to worry. "The changes in society are as important, if not more important than global warming, or even natural cycles," he says. "When you double some vulnerable populations every 20 to 30 years, that's what's going to cause disasters. We've got a huge problem even if hurricanes don't change at all."

Extras: See photos, field notes, and more from this National Geographic article.

Read this next, what are hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones, will the supermoon affect flooding during hurricane idalia, crocodiles are spreading north in florida. that’s a good thing..

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A Category 6 hurricane? Stronger storms spark debate among experts to adjust Saffir-Simpson scale

Category 5 hurricanes are classified as having sustained winds of over 157 mph.

Hurricane experts are debating adding a Category 6 on the current scale to highlight the increasing possibility of stronger storms as ocean waters continue to warm.

Researchers are introducing an extension of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, the system used by the National Hurricane Center to rank the strength of hurricanes, to include a sixth category, beyond the Category 5 classification that indicates a storm with sustained winds of 157 mph or more, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.

The scale currently rates a tropical system as a Category 1 hurricane once sustained winds reach 70 mph. But the Saffir-Simpson scale is "far from perfect," especially in terms of adequately warning residents in impacted regions of the potential dangers to come, Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and one of the authors of the paper, told ABC News.

"Some Category 3 storms are really deadly, and some Category 5 storms aren't by the time they make landfall," Wehner said.

The authors propose a Category 6 hurricane rating is necessary starting at 193 mph of sustained wind, though Wehner admitted the choice of where to set that limit was somewhat arbitrary.

PHOTO: Residents of Arden Villas apartments use rubber boats, air mattresses and kiddie pools to float their belongings out of their homes on Sept. 30, 2022, after heavy rains from Hurricane Ian flooded the complex near the University of Central Florida.

When the scale was first introduced in the 1970s, it accounted for wind and water-driven destruction from storm surge, the paper highlighted. In 2010, the National Hurricane Center altered the scale to only account for wind.

In addition, only 8% of tropical storm deaths are directly related to wind, while 76% of the mortality is related to storm surge and flooding from heavy rain, the authors noted.

Messaging around hurricane risk is a very active topic among researchers, and adding a sixth category is a way to raise awareness about the increased risks of supersized hurricanes due to global warming, James Kossin, distinguished science adviser at environmental nonprofit First Street Foundation and the other author of the study, said in a statement .

"Our results are not meant to propose changes to this scale, but rather to raise awareness that the wind-hazard risk from storms presently designated as Category 5 has increased and will continue to increase under climate change," Kossin said.

MORE: Climate change making Atlantic hurricanes twice as likely to strengthen from weak to major intensity in 24 hours

When examining extremes in hurricane wind speeds to determine whether the open-ended Category 5 is sufficient to communicate risk in a warming climate, the researchers found "a new breed of storms" in the last decade, Wehner said.

Within that time frame, there have been multiple storms that may "have exceeded this hypothetical Category 6," Wehner said.

PHOTO: Aliana Alexis of Haiti stands on the concrete slab of what is left of her home after destruction from Hurricane Dorian in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas, Sept. 5, 2019.

The study looked at all 197 tropical cyclones around the world that were classified as Category 5 from 1980 to 2021, which comprises the period of highest quality and most consistent data, the authors said. Half of the Category 5 storms occurred in the last 17 years of that period, according to the study.

Five of the storms examined exceeded the authors' proposed Category 6, and all of them occurred in the last nine years of the record. Of the five storms achieving the proposed Category 6 status, one of them was Hurricane Patricia in 2015, which had weakened to a Category 4 as it made landfall in western Mexico. The other four storms were typhoons in the Western Pacific.

"If you looked at the beginning of the satellite record around 1980, there was essentially no risk of the Category 6 storm in 1980," Wehner said. "The trend in the speed limit is actually pretty pretty strong."

MORE: This is what it's like to fly inside a powerful hurricane

However, no hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico has reached the study's proposed Category 6 level. Typhoons in the Western Pacific do not use the Saffir-Simpson scale for intensity ratings.

Statistical analysis showed the rapidly increasing risk is due to human changes in the atmosphere and not natural variability, Wehner said.

PHOTO: Workers repair the roof of a motel after it was damaged by Hurricane Michael on October 17, 2018 in Panama City, Florida.

Human-induced climate change and warming waters are fueling tropical cyclones with much windier conditions than the initial Category 5 threshold entailed, at 157 mph, the authors said.

"We expected that the strongest storms will become stronger," Wehner said of how climate change will affect future tropical systems.

MORE: Heat-driven shifts in wind patterns could increase hurricane risks along US coastlines, researchers say

It will be necessary to change the "speed limit" of future hurricanes because as global temperatures rise, conditions like warmer ocean temperatures will increase the risk of seeing these so-called "Category 6" storms, Wehner said.

PHOTO: People walk in the rain and wind from Post-Tropical Cyclone Lee on September 16, 2023 in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Warmer waters are also fueling rapid intensification as storms approach the coasts, "which is very dangerous because it doesn't give people a lot of time to prepare," Jennifer Collins, a hurricane researcher at the University of South Florida who was not involved in the study, told ABC News.

MORE: Here's how climate change is making hurricanes more devastating

Other experts have raised concerns that adding a Category 6 to the scale increases the chance of people underestimating the risks from storms that are lower than the highest category. For example, if they chose not to evacuate for a Category 4 or 5 storm because the higher category makes lower-rated hurricanes appear less dangerous.

National Hurricane Center Director Michael Brennan said in a statement that they're focused on communicating the hazards and they don't want to overemphasize the wind hazard by placing too much emphasis on the category system.

"At NHC, we've tried to steer the focus toward the individual hazards, which include storm surge, wind, rainfall, tornadoes and rip currents, instead of the particular category of the storm, which only provides information about the hazard from wind," he said in a statement.

PHOTO: A house damaged by Hurricane Maria stands in Kalinago, Dominica, on Wednesday, May 9 2018.

In addition, Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale already captures "catastrophic damage" from wind, so it's not clear that there would be a need for another category even if storms were to get stronger, Brennan said.

In response, Wehner described the hurricane center's comments assessment as "completely appropriate."

"We don't expect that the hurricane center or [World Meteorological Organization] will add this Category 6. It's certainly not for us to tell them what to do," Wehner said. "That's not what we intended."

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'Category 5' was considered the worst hurricane. There's something scarier, study says.

hurricane research article

As fearsome as Category 5 hurricanes can be for people living in harm's way, a new study reports global warming is supercharging some of the most intense cyclones with winds high enough to merit a hypothetical Category 6. 

The world’s most intense hurricanes are growing even more intense, fueled by rising temperatures in the ocean and atmosphere, according to the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . And, the authors say, a Category 5 on the traditional wind scale underestimates their dangers.

“As a cautious scientist, you never want to cry wolf,” said Michael Wehner, co-author and climate scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. But after searching for the signature of climate change in the world’s most intense cyclones, Wehner said he and co-author Jim Kossin found “the wolf is here.”

“Significantly increasing” temperatures, fueled by greenhouse gas emissions, up the energy available to the most intense tropical cyclones, reported Wehner and Kossin, a retired federal scientist and science advisor at the nonprofit First Street Foundation.

More cyclones are making the most of it, gaining higher wind speeds and more intensity, the authors said, and their evidence shows that will occur even more often as the world grows warmer.

They used a hypothetical Category 6, with a minimum threshold of 192 mph, to study hurricanes that have occurred in the modern satellite era, since around 1980. They found five hurricanes and typhoons that would have met the criteria and all five occurred within the last decade. 

To be clear, they aren’t proposing adding that category to the National Hurricane Center’s wind scale, which experts say would require a lengthy process and many partners. But they are hoping to “inform broader discussions about how to better communicate risk in a warming world,” Kossin told USA TODAY.

Their findings emphasize that the dangers associated with a Category 5 cyclone are increasing as storms intensify above the Cat 5’s 157-mph threshold and that results in an underestimation of risk, he said.

They found the chances of that potential intensity occurring in such storms have more than doubled since 1979. They say the areas where the growing risks of these storms are of greatest concern are the Gulf of Mexico, the Philippines, parts of Southeast Asia and Australia.

Their peer-reviewed, scientific research provides the evidence pointing to climate change that some scientists have been waiting for. 

For more than 35 years, the scientific community has expected to see thermodynamic wind speeds increase in hurricanes , said Kerry Emanuel, the climate scientist who edited the paper for the journal. “And now we are seeing this increase in both climate analyses and models..”

What is the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale? 

The hurricane center has used the well-known scale – with wind speed ranges for each of five categories – since the 1970s. The minimum threshold for Category 5 winds is 157 mph.

Designed by engineer Herbert Saffir and adapted by former center director Robert Simpson, the scale stops at Category 5 since winds that high would “cause rupturing damages that are serious no matter how well it's engineered,” Simpson said during a 1999  interview.

The open-ended Category 5 describes anything from “a nominal Category 5 to infinity,” Kossin said. “That’s becoming more and more inadequate with time because climate change is creating more and more of these unprecedented intensities.” 

A Category 6? 

Scientists, including Kossin, have occasionally brought up adding another category to the scale for more than 20 years.

Climate scientist Michael Mann, director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability & the Media at the University of Pennsylvania, has argued for years that the Earth is “experiencing a new class of monster storms – ‘Category 6’ – hurricanes,” thanks to the effects of human-caused warming. 

Mann wrote a commentary to the Wehner and Kossin study, published in the same journal Monday, saying their work lays out an objective case for expanding the scale to include the “climate change-fueled stronger and more destructive storms.”

“We are witnessing hurricanes that – by any logical extension of the existing Saffir-Simpson scale – deserve to be placed in a whole separate, more destructive category from the traditionally defined (category 5) 'strongest' storms,” Mann wrote. 

The research adds to a growing discussion about how the center, emergency managers and others could better convey the full range of hazards from a major hurricane. 

Climate change Is it fueling hurricanes in the Atlantic? Here's what science says.

Hurricane scale doesn’t measure other, greater risks

The Saffir-Simpson scale only describes the wind risk and does not account for coastal storm surge and rainfall-driven flooding, the two biggest killers in hurricanes. 

Adding a sixth category to the wind scale wouldn’t help address those concerns, Kossin said. 

The hurricane center has tried to steer the focus toward the individual hazards, including storm surge, wind, rainfall, tornadoes and rip currents, Jamie Rhome, the center’s deputy executive director, said last week. “So, we don't want to over-emphasize the wind hazard by placing too much emphasis on the category.”

Despite the center’s efforts, the storm’s wind category always gets the most attention from the public when a storm approaches. 

“That focus on category over the years has detracted from effective communication of the other hazards,” said James Franklin, a retired branch chief for hurricane specialists at the hurricane center. "The emphasis at the NHC, rightly, has been to focus on the hazards,” he said. 

Ultimately, the decision would likely rest with the center, but Kossin said the conversation would “have to happen over time with a lot of input” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, social scientists and others. 

It’s likely the World Meteorological Organization would be asked to weigh in because of the international scope involved in hurricane and typhoon forecasting, Franklin said. That’s the same group that sets the list of hurricane names for each season. 

To Franklin, the question is what would a sixth category accomplish?

“If there are things that emergency managers would do differently, or the public might do differently because a storm has 195 mph winds versus 160 mph winds, then maybe the categories should be changed,” he said. “Personally, I’m getting out of the way if it’s 165 mph winds or 195 mph winds.”

Which storms fit the study’s hypothetical Category 6 description? 

One hurricane in the eastern Pacific, Patricia, and four typhoons in the western Pacific:

◾ Haiyan , November 2013: Struck the southern Philippines with 196-mph winds and a storm surge of almost 25 feet, killing 6,300 people and leaving 4 million homeless.

◾ Patricia , October 2015: Reached winds of 216 mph at sea , then dropped before it made landfall in Jalisco , Mexico as a Category 4 storm .

◾ Meranti , September 2016: Moved between the Philippines and Taiwan before making landfall in eastern China. Its winds reached 196 mph. 

◾ Goni , November 2020: Made landfall in the Philippines with winds estimated at 196 mph. 

◾ Surigae , April 2021: Reached wind speeds of 196 mph over the ocean, tracking east of the Philippines. Its max winds were the highest ever recorded for a storm from January to April anywhere in the world.

Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environmental issues for USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or @dinahvp.

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Learn what causes these deadly storms—and how to stay safe.

The wind at the beach is whipping at 95 miles an hour. Waves 16 feet tall are crashing down. Even sharks are heading out to calmer waters. A hurricane is on its way.

These powerful storms have different names depending on where in the world they form. They’re called hurricanes if they occur in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and eastern Pacific Ocean. In the western Pacific Ocean, they’re known as typhoons; in the southern Pacific and Indian Oceans, they’re called cyclones.

Scientists know them all as tropical cyclones. As many as 150 occur around the world each year.

How a hurricane forms

Hurricanes are strong storms that start in the ocean and have winds of at least 74 miles an hour. In the Northern Hemisphere (the part of Earth north of the equator), hurricanes generally occur between mid-August to late October. In the Southern Hemisphere (the area south of the equator), storm season is between April and December, with peak storm activity around May and November. During these times, oceans have warmer water, which is what a hurricane needs to form.

Hurricanes begin when a tropical depression forms in the ocean. A tropical depression is a line of rain showers and weak thunderstorms that circle around an area of low air pressure. If the water is at least 79°F, a hurricane might form.

The low air pressure causes the hot, humid air from the ocean to rise in a spiral shape. As that warm air rises, it releases heat, cools down, and condenses into gusty bands of clouds and storms. The low-pressure area continues to suck up hot, moist air, and the spiral gets stronger and faster.

When winds reach 39 miles an hour, the tropical depression becomes a tropical storm. When winds reach 74 miles an hour, it’s officially a hurricane.

As a hurricane moves over cooler water or hits land, it loses the warm water that fuels it and begins to weaken. But dangerous winds can still cause damage, and storm surges—when a strong storm pushes ocean water ashore—can flood coastal areas with more than 20 feet of water. Heavy rains and floods can continue far inland.

Understanding a hurricane’s strength

Hurricanes are classified by wind speed and the amount of damage that scientists predict the storm will cause when it reaches land. (In the United States, this is done by the National Hurricane Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

For example, a Category 1 storm has wind speeds of 74 to 95 miles an hour and will probably damage some homes and cause a few power outages. But a Category 5 hurricane is considered a powerful, destructive storm. These storms have winds of 156 miles an hour or more and will likely cause so much damage that people must abandon their communities, which will need months to clean up.

These rankings can help predict the severity of an approaching storm, but any hurricane can be devastating. For instance, Hurricane Katrina was only a Category 3 storm when it hit the U.S. Gulf Coast around Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. The storm caused over $100 billion in damages, and nearly 2,000 people died.

Predicting the path

Meteorologists can predict the path that a hurricane will travel—and where it will make landfall—by analyzing changes in temperature, cloud formations, and air circulation patterns. That data is gathered by specialized aircraft, satellites, and weather surveillance radar from above the Earth. Other scientific devices that float in the ocean can measure winds, waves, and air and sea temperatures.

The information from these tools is used to create computer forecasting models used by scientists to learn when a storm is forming, where it might travel, and how severe it will be. That can help local officials release warnings or even evacuation orders in order to keep people safe from the coming hurricane.

Naming hurricanes

Once a storm’s wind speed reachers 39 miles an hour, it becomes a tropical storm and is given a name. The name is chosen from a list of about 20 names issued by the World Meteorological Organization at the beginning of the hurricane season. They alternate between female and male names.

But you won’t see David, Katrina, Andrew, or Laura on that list—those hurricanes were so destructive that the names have been removed. And you won’t hear of any hurricanes starting with Q, U, X, Y, or Z, since few names begin with those letters.

More powerful storms in the future?

In the future, scientists don’t expect to see more hurricanes, but they do expect more powerful ones. That’s because hurricanes get bigger more quickly in warmer water. As climate change causes ocean temperatures to rise, scientists predict that future hurricanes will be rainier and longer lasting.

How to survive a hurricane

The safest thing to do is to follow local instructions and leave the area, or evacuate, if officials say you should. Here are other tips for staying safe if a hurricane is headed your way.

Before a hurricane •  Know the evacuation routes in your neighborhood, and make sure your parents have put gas in the car. •  Check your yard to see if any branches are broken on trees and alert an adult if they are. (Those branches could break off and soar through a window!) •  Bring in anything that could blow away, like garbage cans and outdoor furniture. •  Close all your windows, storm shutters, blinds, and curtains.

During a hurricane •  If you haven’t evacuated, stay indoors where it’s safe. • Fill all bathtubs and sinks with clean, cold water in case water lines are damaged or the supply becomes contaminated. •  Ride out the storm in an interior room, such as a hallway or closet on the lowest level of your house. • Never go near a window, even if it’s boarded up. •  If it looks like the storm is going to hit your home, lie on the floor under a table or another sturdy object. •  Limit the use of cell phones to free up space for emergency calls.

After a hurricane •  Listen to weather reports to make sure the storm has passed. A calm sky might be just the hurricane’s eye, or center, and more storm fun will be on the way. • If you evacuated, return only when officials say it’s safe. •  Check all food for spoilage. Remember: If in doubt, throw it out.

Adapted from the Nat Geo Kids book Extreme Weather by Thomas Kostigen, revised for digital by Laura Goertzel

Learn more about hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones at National Geographic .

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NOAA’s new hurricane forecast model: A conversation with the lead modeler

  • May 24, 2023

hurricane research article

We sat down with Sundararaman “Gopal” Gopalakrishnan, Ph.D. , the senior meteorologist and leader of the modeling team that developed NOAA’s newest hurricane forecast model – the Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System – that is expected to go into full operation at NOAA’s National Weather Service in late June. Gopalakrishnan leads the Hurricane Modeling and Prediction Program at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory, (AOML) Hurricane Research Division . He is also the development manager for NOAA’s Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program (HFIP)

1. What are the major ways this forecast model differs from the hurricane forecast models NOAA has used previously? 

The Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System brings together the best of our existing hurricane forecast models and adds key research advancements to create more accurate, higher-resolution forecast information both over land and ocean that can save lives and protect property. The foundational component for this model is its moving nest, which allows the model to zoom in on hurricanes across the Atlantic and Pacific basins. In the future, the model will also allow forecasters to track multiple hurricanes at once, which has been shown to improve the accuracy of our forecasts of track and intensity, or wind speeds.

The moving nest is like a high-definition TV that allows us to zoom into areas of a hurricane such as the eyewall and bands of intense rain. With a resolution down to 1.2 miles or 2 kilometers in a model with a general resolution of 7 miles or 12 km, we can better predict wind speeds and precipitation amounts. The moving nest was developed at AOML in coordination with NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) FV3 modeling group. 

The the Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System also has improved physics gleaned from high-resolution radar and flight level observations collected by AOML scientists during flights by NOAA Hurricane Hunter Aircraft P-3 in recent NOAA hurricane field campaigns . The data have enabled us to improve our understanding of the structure of hurricanes and their representation in the new model.

In the 1990s, we focused on improving the track of hurricanes. Since the early 2000s, we have also focused on improving predictions of intensity, or hurricane winds. This need was heightened by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The public demand continues for more accurate information about winds, rainfall, tornadic threats over land and storm-surge, demonstrated by hurricanes such as Michael (2018), Laura (2020) and Ian (2022).

2. What observations are used in the model? Are some of the newer observations from uncrewed systems being used in the model?

The new model uses satellite observations, radar data, NOAA Hurricane Hunter Aircraft and U.S. Air Force Reserve flight-level data of winds, moisture, temperature and Global Positioning System radio occultation observations, a remote sensing technique to measure the atmosphere. The AOML team has also used invaluable turbulence measurements from Hurricane Hunter flights to improve the model’s physics. There are still gaps in the model, especially in our understanding of the area where the ocean and atmosphere meet, a key area called the boundary layer, where hurricanes gain and lose strength through an exchange of heat and energy between the ocean and atmosphere. New observations from uncrewed ocean and aircraft systems will definitely help in the future to improve our understanding of this area and of our model. 

3. Tell us about how the new model was created? Who worked on this? 

The model is a perfect example of teamwork. It was jointly created by AOML’s Hurricane Modeling and Prediction Program and NOAA’s National Weather Service Environmental Modeling Center (EMC) in collaboration with GFDL and NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Marine & Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami . A major component of the physics used to represent the boundary layer relies on observations from NOAA Hurricane Hunter P-3 aircraft . The testing and evaluation was jointly done by EMC and AOML. HAFS was created to aid forecasters with better tools and model products for providing guidance.Consequently, the forecasters at National Hurricane Center were involved from the developmental stages of the model all the way to its evaluation and implementation.  HAFS, which is part of the Unified Forecast System , is also a great example of community-based collaboration on model development and the streamlining of the operational transition process. 

4. What future improvements to the model are you planning that will help emergency managers and the public?  

We are at the starting point of the next generation of hurricane forecast modeling.The initial operational capability is expected to replace the Hurricane Weather Research and Forecast System (HWRF) and the Hurricane in a Multi-scale Ocean-coupled Non-hydrostatic Model (HMON). Running the experimental version of HAFS from 2019 to 2022 in near real time, we have already seen a 10-15% improvement in track predictions compared to the best hurricane model today, HWRF. This season, these two older models will also run in parallel with HAFS as we complete the full transition. 

NOAA plans to implement the basin-scale HAFS in 2025 and 2026, which is expected to improve prediction of interactions between several tropical cyclones as well as the prediction of how storms behave once they make landfall. This will aid forecasters at NHC with improved products of winds, rainfall and tornado threats inland.  NOAA’s Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program is also supporting the development of the HAFS ensemble system with a focus on incorporating risk communication research to create more effective watch and warning products in future. 

To continue this work we need to retain our motivated and talented workforce as well as to bring in new skilled researchers to ensure we have a diverse workforce. We also need more high performance computing power to help us accelerate the progress we are making.

Additional resources:

Five ways NOAA’s research is improving hurricane forecasts

A day in the life of a NOAA Hurricane Hunter

For more information, please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Research, at [email protected] or 202-379-6693.

Gary Matlock

Celebrating Dr. Gary Matlock’s 30-year NOAA Career

Thomas L. Delworth profile

A Q&A with Dr. Tom Delworth, celebrated recipient of the Presidential Rank Award

hurricane research article

Kristen Schepel: Changing the climate for innovation 

A group of men surround one woman, Deborah Lee, on board a research vessel on a large lake. They are all wearing NOAA helmets

GLERL Director Deborah Lee receives credential in sustainable infrastructure

Parikha and Wayne talking while standing next to a model of a plane

Patenting innovation in climate science

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  • v.122(2); Mar-Apr 2007

The Public's Preparedness for Hurricanes in Four Affected Regions

Robert j. blendon.

a Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA

John M. Benson

b Harvard Opinion Research Program, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA

Catherine M. DesRoches

c Health Policy, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA

Katherine Lyon-Daniel

d National Center on Health Marketing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA

Elizabeth W. Mitchell

William e. pollard.

purpose of this article is to look at how prepared people in communities outside the main areas devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita thought they were for those storms and for major hurricanes in the near future, what factors were related to why people did not evacuate, and what concerns people had in communities that took in evacuees from the hurricanes.

Telephone interviews were conducted with randomly selected adults in Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, and Mississippi/Alabama (excluding the immediate Gulf Coast) to assess respondents' knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors about hurricane preparedness and response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The surveys found a sizeable proportion of respondents who might not, for a number of reasons, comply with future orders to evacuate. A substantial proportion reported that they were not prepared for another major hurricane and indicated a desire for more information about how to prepare for future hurricanes. In communities that reported taking in large numbers of evacuees, residents expressed concern about the impact of the evacuees on their community.

Evacuating communities involves a number of concrete problems that were not adequately addressed in the cases of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Responses to these surveys indicate a need for more comprehensive hurricane disaster planning.

Two major hurricanes, Katrina (August 29, 2005) and Rita (September 24, 2005), made landfall in the Gulf Coast region of the United States four weeks apart. Katrina was the deadliest hurricane since 1928 and likely the costliest natural disaster on record in the U.S. The storm surge, strong winds, and heavy rains, along with storm-induced breeches in the levee system surrounding New Orleans, caused widespread destruction in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The disaster was compounded when Hurricane Rita made landfall 26 days later near the Texas-Louisiana border, forcing evacuation of coastal regions of those two states and complicating post-Katrina relief efforts. 1

The experience with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita raised serious questions about the level of hurricane preparedness at all levels of government, including important issues of public health service delivery. This article is an effort to provide information about the public's response to these hurricanes for those with public health responsibilities in order to prepare for future hurricanes. It builds on a substantial body of earlier research on how people and communities responded to hurricanes. 2 – 7

In the time since these two hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast, a variety of research papers have been written about the impact of the storms on the areas most severely affected, especially New Orleans. 8 – 11 One area where there has been less study is how prepared potentially impacted populations were prior to the storms' arrivals, and how prepared they were to deal with evacuees who came to their communities in the aftermath of hurricanes.

The purpose of this study was to examine these preparedness issues in the communities that were outside the main areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina but close enough to have been potentially affected severely by Katrina and Rita. The aim is to answer six key questions: ( 1 ) What are the factors related to why people who are in the potential path of a major hurricane do not evacuate? ( 2 ) How prepared did people in potentially affected areas think they were for the recent hurricanes and how prepared do they think they are for hurricanes in the near future? ( 3 ) What did people do to help those who were affected by the hurricanes? ( 4 ) What proportion of people in affected areas felt stress and what did they do to cope with the stress? ( 5 ) What concerns did people have in communities that took in evacuees from the hurricanes? ( 6 ) How much interest did people in the affected areas have in obtaining information about preparedness for future hurricanes, and what sources of information would they be most likely to use about health problems associated with the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?

To determine the general public's knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors regarding disaster preparation, evacuation, and response in areas affected by the two hurricanes, the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), in collaboration with ICR/International Communications Research, conducted a survey from October 3–9, 2005, in four regions of the Gulf Coast. 12 Three of the regions (Baton Rouge, Houston, and Mississippi/Alabama, excluding coastal counties) were selected because they were heavily impacted by one or both of the hurricanes, but were outside the main area of devastation that would have been inaccessible for a phone survey at the time. Dallas was selected because we had originally expected that community to be affected by Hurricane Rita. Because the hurricane was expected to have a major effect on the area, but did not, the results from Dallas provide a useful comparison with data from the other three regions. This article also uses data from a national survey of adults, most of whom were largely unaffected by the hurricanes, as a comparison with results from the more affected areas.

International Communications Research conducted telephone interviews to assess respondents' knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors about disaster preparedness and response related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The questionnaires were administered to adults aged ≥18 years, who were selected by using a fully replicated, stratified, single-stage, random-digit dialing sample of households nationally and in four regions of the Gulf Coast. An adult respondent was randomly selected within each household.

A total of 500 adults completed interviews in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; 505 in Harris Country (including Houston), Texas; 501 in Mississippi and Alabama, excluding but adjacent to counties near the Gulf that had been declared disaster areas and eligible for individual assistance as of September 3, 2005; and 500 in Dallas County, Texas.

The national survey of U.S. adults was conducted September 16–20, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina but before Hurricane Rita. 13 Telephone exchanges that were nonoperational due to the storm (including New Orleans and other affected areas in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi) were excluded from the sampling frame. The excluded exchanges represent less than 2% of the population nationally. This exclusion of the most devastated areas enabled us to look at the responses of Americans who were less affected by the hurricanes. A total of 1,116 adults completed interviews. This total included an oversample of African Americans and Latinos so that the sample of these groups would be of adequate size for subsequent statistical analyses.

For the national survey and for each of the four regions separately, the data were first weighted to account for the probability of household selection attributable to multiple telephone lines and the probability associated with the random selection of an individual household member. Following the application of the above weight, the sample was post-stratified and weighted by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and education to be representative of the adult population of the U.S. as a whole or the particular region.

Experience with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Large majorities in the Baton Rouge area (84%) and Houston/Harris County (71%) reported that their communities were threatened by one or both of the hurricanes ( Table 1 ). This compares with about half of Mississippi/Alabama (47%) and 17% of Dallas County residents. 12 About three-fourths of Baton Rouge area residents (76%) reported that their community was damaged by the hurricane(s), compared with 37% of Houston/Harris County, 36% of Mississippi/Alabama, and 5% of Dallas County residents. A majority of residents in all four areas reported that there were currently people in their community who came there from somewhere else because of the hurricanes. Baton Rouge area residents (86%) were more likely than residents of Houston/Harris County (63%), Mississippi/Alabama (63%), and Dallas (66%) to report that they had such people in their community.

Experiences with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

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Studies from previous hurricanes suggest that in any given storm a portion of the population will not evacuate when told to by government officials and will require rescue and aid after the storm. 2 – 4 , 14 We tried to understand this phenomenon in two ways. In areas that were threatened by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we asked those who did not leave why they did not evacuate. Then, in a hypothetical question about a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood, we asked people if they would evacuate if told to do so by government officials, and if not, why they would not leave.

Nearly half (47%) of residents of Houston/Harris County, the one area where there had been an official evacuation order, reported that they left their community because of the hurricane(s) ( Table 2 ). This was significantly higher than the proportion of Baton Rouge area (20%), Mississippi/Alabama (6%), and Dallas County (7%) residents who reported leaving their communities. 12

Evacuation for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and reasons for not evacuating

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In the four regions, the top reasons given for not evacuating the community were they thought they would be safe at home (73% to 79%) and they thought the hurricane and its aftermath would not be as bad as they turned out to be (42% to 51%). Other reasons given by 20% or more respondents in at least one of the communities were worries that their property would be stolen or damaged if they left (20% to 31%), not being able to get gas (16% to 29%), not knowing where to go that would be safe to stay (11% to 21%), not being able to afford to leave (8% to 23%), trying but being unable to leave (6% to 21%), and not wanting to leave pets (10% to 22%). In addition, a substantial proportion of people who did not leave reported that they were physically unable to leave (5% to 11%) or had to care for someone who was physically unable to leave (8% to 16%). 12

Respondents in the four regions were then asked if they would evacuate if during the next month another major hurricane threatened their community and government officials said they had to evacuate. Regardless of the area, a substantial minority of the public was not sure they would evacuate (i.e., they said they would stay, or it would depend, or they did not know if they would leave) ( Table 3 ). Residents of Houston/Harris County, the one area where there had been an official evacuation order, were more likely to express uncertainty about evacuating (33%) than Baton Rouge area (19%) and Mississippi/Alabama (20%) residents. In both the Baton Rouge area (96% to 78%) and Houston/Harris County (80% to 56%), respondents who evacuated for Katrina and/or Rita were more significantly likely than those who did not evacuate to say that they would leave if told to do so by government officials in a future hurricane. 12

Evacuation for future hurricane a and reasons for not evacuating

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(vol) = response volunteered by the respondent

NA = not asked

Similarly, when Americans nationwide were asked whether or not they would leave if government officials said that they had to evacuate the area because there was going to be a serious hurricane or flood in the next few days, about one-fourth (24%) of the public was not sure if they would leave. Nationally, the top reasons given for not evacuating the community were they were worried their possessions would be stolen or damaged (39%), they would not be able to afford to leave (26%), and they would not want to leave their pet (26%). 13

Hurricane readiness

A substantial proportion of people surveyed in the four regions reported that they were less than fully prepared for the past hurricane(s) or another major hurricane in the near future.

Generally speaking, residents of the Baton Rouge area and Houston/Harris County were more likely than residents of the other two regions to report having been prepared for the most recent hurricane and being prepared for another major hurricane in the next month ( Table 4 ). Baton Rouge area residents (54%) were more likely than Mississippi/Alabama (43%) and Dallas County (41%) residents to report that they and their family were very prepared before the last hurricane in their area. 12

Preparation for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and for future major hurricanes

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Baton Rouge area (52%) and Houston/Harris County (43%) residents were more likely than Mississippi/Alabama (32%) and Dallas County (23%) residents to report having taken additional steps after Hurricane Katrina to prepare for another major hurricane. About six in 10 Baton Rouge area (63%) and Houston/Harris County (61%) residents reported that they were very prepared if there were another major hurricane in the next month. This compares with 49% of Mississippi/Alabama and 49% of Dallas County residents. Baton Rouge area (62%) and Houston/Harris County (67%) residents were more likely than Mississippi/Alabama (51%) and Dallas County (47%) residents to report that they have a plan to get out of their community if there were another major hurricane in the next month. Houston/Harris County (77%) residents were more likely than Mississippi/Alabama (60%) and Dallas County (59%) residents to report that they have a plan to contact family members in such an event.

Steps taken by residents to help those affected by the hurricane(s)

Studies of past disasters have shown that a substantial share of services provided to people affected by hurricanes comes from people in surrounding communities. 4 Nearly half of Baton Rouge area residents (46%) reported having taken someone into their own homes who had to leave their community because of the hurricane(s) ( Table 5 ). This compares with 21% of Houston/Harris County, 11% of Mississippi/Alabama, and 17% of Dallas County residents. 12 In the national survey, conducted shortly after Hurricane Katrina but before Rita, 6% of adults nationwide reported having offered to take such a person into their own homes. 13

Steps people have taken to help those affected by the hurricane

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Residents of the four regions also reported having done the following things to help those affected by the hurricane: donated food, clothes, or money (76% to 83%); attended a special religious service or said prayers specifically for hurricane victims (50% to 65%); organized or worked for a fundraiser (20% to 30%); and volunteered time at a shelter (14% to 27%). 12 Nationally, after Katrina but before Rita, about two-thirds (65%) of Americans reported that they donated money and about one-third (32%) that they had donated clothes to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina. Six in 10 (60%) said they had attended religious services or said prayers specifically for hurricane victims, 17% that they had organized or worked for a fundraiser. 13

A concern for officials involved in preparedness is how to help people with the stress they feel after a disaster like a major hurricane. We tried to measure how many residents of the four regions felt stressed and what they were doing to cope with this stress. Baton Rouge area (68%) and Houston/Harris County (59%) residents were more likely than Mississippi/Alabama (45%) and Dallas County (39%) residents to report that they had felt stressed because of the recent major hurricanes ( Table 6 ). 12

Health concerns due to recent major hurricanes

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In all four regions, nearly everyone who said they were stressed reported engaging in one or more of five coping measures (consulting a website to learn how to protect yourself, taking anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication, seeing a counselor, praying, or talking with family members about it) to deal with the stress. In addition, many people reported eating more, smoking more, and drinking more alcohol to deal with the stress. Among the overall adult populations of the four regions, Baton Rouge area (66%) and Houston/Harris County (57%) residents were more likely than Mississippi/Alabama (43%) and Dallas County (38%) residents to report that they had felt stressed and engaged in one or more coping measures to deal with the stress. In addition, Baton Rouge area (33%) and Houston/Harris County (25%) residents were more likely than Mississippi/Alabama (15%) and Dallas County (13%) residents to report that they had felt stressed and had eaten, smoked, or drunk more alcohol to deal with the stress.

Concerns about evacuees in local communities

In situations where a large number of people need to evacuate to other communities, one important consideration is how concerned the residents are with health problems and other burdens their community might face because of the presence of evacuees.

Among those who reported that there were people in their community who had come from elsewhere because of the hurricanes, from one-fourth to one-half believed that because of those people's presence the community would face an increase in infectious disease. Baton Rouge area residents (50%) were more likely than Houston/Harris County (32%), Mississippi/Alabama (25%), and Dallas County (36%) residents to believe this would be the case. Baton Rouge area residents (80%) were also more likely than Houston/Harris County (69%), Mississippi/Alabama (45%), and Dallas County (70%) residents to believe that their community would face a problem with a drain on community services and resources, which might cost taxpayers money. 12

Interest in information about hurricanes

An important issue of preparedness is how interested the public would be in getting information about how to prepare for a disaster like a hurricane and how to evacuate. Another is where people are likely to look for post-hurricane information about the health problems that might arise.

A majority of respondents in each of the four regions said they would be very or somewhat interested in learning more from outside sources about what supplies to have on-hand in order to be prepared (57% to 66%) and how to evacuate if there was another major hurricane (61% to 69%) ( Table 7 ). In all four regions, a higher proportion of African American than non-Hispanic whites said they were very or somewhat interested in learning more. 12

Interest in information about hurricanes, by race

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Respondents were also asked how likely they would be to contact four government agencies as a source of information about health problems due to the hurricanes. About half of people in the four regions said they would be very or somewhat likely to contact each of the agencies: their local health department (52% to 56%), local emergency services (49% to 59%), state health department (48% to 57%), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (45% to 50%). In each of the four regions, a higher proportion of African American than non-Hispanic whites said they were very or somewhat likely to contact each of the four sources. Regression analysis indicates that race rather than income, age, or gender was the main correlate with these variables.

These findings indicate that more has to be done to prepare for the problems that people say might prevent them from evacuating during a natural disaster and for the sorts of problems that actually kept people from leaving during the recent Gulf hurricanes without additional preparedness and planning. A sizeable minority of respondents might not comply with future government orders to evacuate if another major hurricane threatened their community.

People will fail to comply for two sets of reasons. Some will not evacuate because they do not trust the reliability of the forecast or believe their home can safely survive the storm. For this group, specific education messages need to focus on the damage done to populations that ignored evacuation orders prior to major hurricanes and remained in these areas. The goal is to use past experiences to convince potential non-evacuees that the price can be very high if they ignore these orders. Improving the reliability of forecasts will help over the long term, but not in the immediate future, where the accuracy of forecasts is still likely to be questioned. Compliance is likely to increase over the years as accuracy improves.

The second group might not comply with an evacuation order because they need specific information and services to aid them in their evacuation efforts. In order to maximize the potential for future evacuation by this group, local and state areas need to have detailed evacuation plans and contingency plans in place well in advance of community-wide threats such as major hurricanes. The planning should involve being prepared for a disparate list of issues in different communities: worries that their property would be stolen or damaged if they left, not being able to get gas, not knowing where to go that would be safe to stay, not being able to afford to leave, and not wanting to leave pets. A substantial proportion of people who did not leave reported that they had a physical disability or cared for someone who did. The evacuation capacity of state and local programs needs to include the capacity to assist with the evacuation of vulnerable populations. Of note, a substantial proportion of people in Houston, a city that tried to evacuate a larger share of its population than the other regions did, experienced problems getting gas or trying to leave but not being able to.

A substantial proportion of respondents in all of these areas reported that they are not prepared for evacuation from a future hurricane. We recommend an increased and sustained effort to engage people in advance of natural disasters to have a plan for preparation, evacuation, and contacting family members.

In the four Gulf regions we surveyed, particularly in Baton Rouge, many people reported taking in evacuees. Moreover, among those residents who said there were evacuees in their community, many were concerned that the presence of the evacuees would cause an increase in infectious disease in their community and would cause a strain on local resources. Research conducted in communities that received evacuees from Hurricane Katrina showed that the magnitude of the people involved overwhelmed state and local capabilities to assist evacuees and also began to put a strain on community services. 11 , 15

Feelings of stress were widespread in the four regions, and additional eating, smoking, and drinking were found. Public health systems should include increased education about positive countermeasures to stress following natural disasters. In addition, there is a need to increase the availability of mental health services in these areas.

Respondents indicated a desire and need for accurate information preceding and following a natural disaster. African American residents of all four regions appear to want more information from outside sources about hurricanes. We recommend that well-researched and culturally appropriate health messages be developed in advance of the public's need.

It is instructive that even communities that have experienced recent and very real threats by natural disasters still have insufficient plans and capacity in place regarding disaster preparation and readiness. Response to this survey indicates a substantial need for action in three areas: more assistance for disaster planning, increased positive coping strategies for stress following disasters, and quality information available to a wide audience in order to prepare and minimize impact. There is a clear potential role for public health to provide this information.

The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily express the views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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