It's time to consider ditching the forecast cone
"Many Floridians, if not most, have the perception that the forecast was wrong and that the storm bamboozled the experts. But that's not true, and the misperception harms the hurricane warning program." I could have written that in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, but I didn't. That was my quote in the National Weather Service's official assessment conducted after Hurricane Charley in 2004.
It's been 18 years since Charley drove down the right side of the cone into Charlotte County, just north of Fort Myers. Public officials and the media had gathered in Tampa awaiting the cataclysm there, which diverted everyone's attention from the broader threat zone. Apparently, little of this saga has been learned or remembered.
Post-Charley, public officials realized that focusing attention on one big city intrinsically implies there is less concern about other vulnerable spots down the coast. Decision-makers of the era resolved not to do that again.
The cone idea is a product of the early 90s. Prior to 1992, we put dots on a map to convey the National Hurricane Center's forecast path of a storm. I thought that was a bad idea and created the forecast arcs you see below to express the average uncertainty in the NHC's predicted track. I first used that graphic five days before Hurricane Andrew hit the coast south of Miami.
By 1996, new graphics software allowed the ice cream cone to be filled in, and on Miami television, we started using the graphic in essentially the same form we use today. It had to be hand-drawn until 2004, when television graphics software finally used data from the National Hurricane Center to automatically generate the cone.
But 30 years after first displaying a cone-like graphic, it's time to rethink the idea. Simply put, it's not working.
These days, the cone has an outsized influence on how residents and government leaders understand and digest the forecast information from the NHC. An unintended consequence of the power of the cone in today's communication paradigm is the diminished attention to the watches, warnings, and forecast details for areas outside the cone.
The problem is especially acute in the days immediately before landfall. The narrow neck of the cone two days out, which is when evacuations are often ordered or underway, is like a spotlight focused on a narrow stretch of the coast. Areas outside the cone are in relative darkness.
This issue was apparent to me from the beginning. The cone worked well when the storm was well offshore. But near the coast, Hurricane Watches and Warnings were the most appropriate indication of the zone of concern, so we generally dropped the cone and focused on the coastal alerts.
This was possible in the years before the internet, but now the cone is the primary way most people learn whether they're at risk. A significant percentage of people going online for storm information look at the cone and nothing else.
These days, the National Hurricane Center provides much more than just Hurricane Watches and Warnings. Specific alerts for storm surge, including the odds of specific water heights, are provided around the clock, and importantly, for areas well removed from the cone.
Granted, the NHC data suite is a bit of a Rubik's Cube. You have to be experienced to put it all together. But National Hurricane Center forecasters have exhausted themselves training people in city, county, and state governments on how to find and interpret the critical information that pertains specifically to their location.
It was and is shocking to hear leaders ranging from the Governor of Florida to the head of FEMA be misled by the cone. Yes, at one point 3 ½ days before landfall, the cone was centered just east of Tallahassee and had Fort Myers on its edge. But just like Hurricane Charley, sometimes storms track down the edge. And the storm's center goes outside the cone about a third of the time – a well-publicized stat.
The system is clearly broken. Lee County officials insist they couldn't pull the trigger on evacuations on Sunday or Monday ahead of the Wednesday afternoon landfall because they were out of cone, which is debatable, but that's not the main issue. The National Hurricane Center couldn't have been clearer. The entire west coast of Florida was threatened.
From Sunday's 11:00 PM ET advisory: "…uncertainty in the track
and intensity forecasts remains higher than usual. Regardless of
Ian's exact track and intensity, there is a risk of dangerous storm
surge, hurricane-force winds, and heavy rainfall along the west
coast of Florida and the Florida Panhandle by the middle of this
week, and residents in Florida should ensure they have their
hurricane plan in place. Follow any advice given by local officials
and closely monitor updates to the forecast."
Except that local officials in Lee County weren't providing advice Sunday night. And they weren't following their long-established thresholds for ordering an evacuation of Zone A, which includes all of the island communities that were decimated by Ian.
The National Hurricane Center provided the data that required evacuation, but county officials were apparently blinded by the cone, which more prominently included Tampa and Tallahassee. The delay was even more shocking since this is the same community that lived through Category 4 Hurricane Charley, a devastating storm in the areas its small circulation impacted.
So it's clear that something is wrong. Intelligent and dedicated public officials with decades of experience and years of training don't understand what the cone means and doesn't mean. Even a week after the disaster, daily public statements continue to demonstrate that many officials lack a fundamental understanding of essential components of the hurricane warning system beyond the cone.
It would be a difficult step to ditch the cone, but this is a communications crisis. Something new has to happen. Scores of people died. We can only honor them by finding a new paradigm that doesn't result in critical misconceptions by so many decision-makers.
In addition, effective immediately, we should insist that our public officials listen, learn, and follow the long-established protocols for ordering evacuations.
The cone is not the end-all and be-all of hurricane-threat communications. There is no reason our leaders shouldn't understand that. Decisions should always be based on the full suite of National Hurricane Center data and information. Only then can public officials accurately qualify and quantify the risk to the residents in all parts of their community so people can get to safety in time.