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Hurricane forum at Hofstra centers on how storm forecasting has evolved

Dr. Louis W. Uccellini, Assistant Administrator for Weather

Dr. Louis W. Uccellini, Assistant Administrator for Weather Services, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Director, National Weather Service speaks at Hofstra University' Hurricane Symposium on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018 in Hempstead. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Much has changed about forecasting hurricanes and warning the public in the 80 years since the Long Island Express, a Category 3 storm, plowed into Suffolk County, totally unannounced.

That storm served as “a wake-up call” for the predecessor of what’s now the National Weather Service, its present boss, Louis Uccellini,  said Wednesday morning at a hurricane symposium at Hofstra University. The event marked the anniversary of the Express, for which eastern Suffolk County was ground zero on Sept. 21, 1938.

That hurricane still “sets the standard for ultimate destruction, societal impact, family lore,” for Long Island and, later, New England, said Uccellini, who grew up in Bethpage hearing his own parents’ tales from the day.

In contrast, he said, hurricane forecasters this year not only pinpointed the track and intensity of Florence days in advance, but also warned of its one-two punch. First, there was the storm surge, followed by extreme rainfall and flooding.

In recent years, there’s been a shift away from just figuring out a storm’s particulars. As he was starting as weather service director in 2013, Uccellini said, a colleague told him that “our outcome had to be societal” -- not just how close forecasters can predict the storm’s track.

That includes getting the word out to the public as to the potential impact of flooding, and supporting emergency managers in their decision-making.

In some cases, that approach means embedding forecasters on site, leading up to and during a storm, as public officials have to make tough calls.

The value of that was confirmed by Tom O’Hara, former emergency management official with Suffolk County, who said that during superstorm Sandy, having a forecaster on site “gave us the confidence  to make the decision very early,” in calling for evacuation of a section of Fire Island.

The symposium’s aim was to “raise awareness of the continuing risk we face on Long Island every hurricane season,” said Jase Bernhardt, symposium director, assistant professor and head of Hofstra’s new meteorology minor program.

Around 100 people -- students, educators, government officials, weather and emergency management folks and otherwise interested community members – were assembled for the keynote address, followed by sessions on modern forecasting techniques and warning methods, as well as how, moving forward, tropical storm risk needs to be incorporated into planning and development.

Nelson Vaz, warning and coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Upton office, spoke of a push since Sandy to incorporate more detailed information on impact. That includes spelling out specifics such as places near the waterfront that could be flooded: parking lots, lawns, basements, vehicles.

In addition, in communiques with emergency managers and the media, his office is now including photos showing just what an area looks like when it’s hit with minor flooding vs. major flooding.

Such endeavors stand on the shoulders of resources and techniques implemented during the watch of one of Uccellini’s predecessors, Francis Reichelderfer, who, shortly after the Express, took over the reins of what was then the weather bureau. He accelerated the pivot from forecasting based on historical scenarios and conditions at surface level to that based on analyzing air masses and fronts, with data from upper levels, Uccellini said.

Reichelderfer, he said, championed the use of radar networks, forecast modeling and satellite imagery during his 25 years at the helm.

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