Hurricane forum: Size of storm is just as important as category

MORGAN CITY, La. — When preparing for a hurricane or tropical storm, the size of the storm may be just as important as the category, officials from the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told about 100 people at the Hurricane Preparedness Forum Monday in Morgan City.

Roger Erickson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lake Charles, said people get fixated on the strength of storm but the size of the storm matters just as much especially in terms of local impact, he said.

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, along with the Port of Morgan City hosted the forum. Boustany said he holds forums annually in Lafayette and Lake Charles, but added the Morgan City forum because his 3rd Congressional District includes the city.

Tim Osborn of NOAA said there are countless instances where storm category and storm surge do not match up.

Storm surge builds on ocean tides, Osborn said. Hurricane Sandy showed how the East and Gulf coasts should work together in storm preparedness. Storm surge is an “opportunist at heart” relying on large open waterways to spread, Osborn said.

St. Mary Parish is “blessed” with a higher elevation than surrounding areas, and the parish is a sanctuary to evacuate from those areas, Osborn said.

Rain from a storm is something the parish is susceptible to, Osborn said. When a storm slows down that brings the potential for heavy rainfall and flooding, he said.

Erickson said several lessons can be learned from recent storms. One of the lessons is that storm surge is highest when it occurs at high tide, which was a lesson learned from Hurricane Sandy, he said.

Another lesson is that a weakening system can cause a large area of storm surge, Erickson said.

Erickson said it is important for people to know their storm surge elevation so they can calculate their threat level.

The best model changes from storm to storm and people should be careful when they hear a forecaster say “this is the model to go with,” Erickson said.

The National Hurricane Center can now overlay storm surge forecasts on Google Earth, Erickson said.

Local weather services can also help give timing for storm surge events in real time, he said.

Duval Arthur, director of the St. Mary Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said he and employees in his office monitor the National Weather Service 24/7 and they have normal procedures they follow in the event of a storm.

Arthur’s staff monitors the amount of water the storm is pushing, the size of the storm and where the storm will come ashore, Arthur said.

For Hurricane Gustav in 2008 the parish evacuated 890 people in the community and transported them by bus to the Rapides Parish Coliseum in Alexandria, which is the designated shelter for the parish, Arthur said.

The Office of Emergency Preparedness coordinates with the school board and school buses are used to help with evacuation. Evacuation of critical medical patients is also an important task, which evacuates those patients by airplane or ambulance.

The parish also has a system in place to account for evacuees if necessary.

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