Assessing the season: LSU hurricane experts learned lessons during Hurricane Season 2004

12/16/04

Renowned researchers examined everything from hurricane shelters and evacuation methods to beach erosion and storm surge

According to LSU Assistant Professor of Geography and Anthropology and Louisiana State Climatologist Barry Keim, Hurricane Season 2004 beat the averages.

It also kept LSU experts on their toes.

There were 15 named storms, eight of which became hurricanes. Six of those fell into the intense/severe category. Keim said that 10 named storms and six hurricanes is considered average. Two intense storms a year is average, he added.

While there were an unusually high number of storms, Keim said that the season was forecast reasonably well, as experts even predicted that October would be a below-average or "weak" month. A developing El Nino helped keep things in check late in the season, Keim explained.

Nevertheless, the heavy activity in late summer and September meant a heavy workload for LSU hurricane experts, as they went about aiding state emergency officials in their preparation efforts and adding to their growing knowledge on the storms and their effects:

  • Marc Levitan, director of the LSU Hurricane Center and expert on wind-effects on buildings, spent time in Florida after Hurricanes Charley and Ivan, examining and assessing schools that were used as hurricane shelters. He looked at 25 schools in hard-hit areas and made a detailed report. Levitan said that, after Andrew struck in 1992, Florida adopted new, stricter building codes for structures designated as hurricane shelters. He explained that all of the new schools built to this code that he examined were fine following Charley and Ivan.

    Levitan, who chairs an International Code Council committee on storm shelters, also went to New Orleans while Ivan was in the Gulf and was still a potential threat to the city. There, he conducted emergency pre-strike assessments of the major public hospitals and provided hospital administrators with information on the safest areas in their medical complexes to put patients who did not evacuate.

  • Greg Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at LSU, made some interesting discoveries about Hurricane Ivan's effects on certain barrier islands. Since 1995, Stone said, the northeastern Gulf of Mexico has taken several severe hurricane hits, most notable of which were Opal in 1995 and Ivan in September, 2004. "Remarkably, the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coasts experienced little to no beach erosion for a decade and a half prior to the landfall of Opal," he said. Studies conducted by institute researchers have monitored some of the worst-impacted areas for more than 10 years and captured the full effects of Ivan and Opal. Their work detailed the recovery process after Opal and the response of barrier islands to Ivan. Stone said they discovered that, while Ivan was a slightly more powerful storm than Opal, the geological response along the coasts was nearly identical in both instances. Although both storms caused severe beach erosion, he said, much of that sand was pushed across the islands as massive deposits protruding into adjacent bays by several hundred feet. Stone's research showed that while both hurricanes were major, actual sand loss from the barriers was minimal.

    According to Stone, National Geographic's television arm is producing a documentary on disasters around the world and representatives will be coming to LSU's campus in the coming months to find out more about hurricanes along the Northern Gulf Coast.

  • Ivor van Heerden, director of LSU's Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, and researchers from the center were involved in a number of different aspects of hurricane preparedness during the 2004 season. Under contract from the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they helped develop a hurricane scenario for the "Hurricane Pam Exercise." This 10-day event involved a large number of parish, state and federal agencies in the development of a plan of how to respond if a major hurricane flooded New Orleans. Center researchers were assigned to different teams, van Heerden said, so that each could enrich the team's effort with their expertise.

    Utilizing LSU's SuperMike supercomputer, Advanced Circulation (ADCIRC) storm surge models were run for a number of hurricanes this season, said van Heerden. Experimental storm surge estimates were posted online for Hurricanes Bonnie, Charley, Ivan and Jeanne. Because Hurricane Ivan was, for a time, aimed right at New Orleans, nine different models were run on the computer during a five-day period. Emergency management personnel from all levels of government, as well as industry, insurance interests and media members, utilized the Ivan storm-surge model information, van Heerden said. After Ivan, van Heerden and other researchers conducted a "hindcast" in which they compared their initial storm surge estimates to the actual storm surge. He said they discovered their model was indeed "right on the money."

    Recently, van Heerden said, center researchers have been working with producers from the PBS television program NOVA and from the cable channel FX on future shows depicting the potential impacts of a major hurricane (such as Ivan) strike on Louisiana.

  • According to Associate Professor of Civil Engineering Brian Wolshon, of LSU's Transportation Research Laboratory, Hurricane Season 2004 was "the busiest season ever for evacuations." Wolshon attempted to travel to many of the areas that used contraflow evacuation routes. He was attempting to collect field data to quantify and assess the movement of traffic under evacuation conditions (the first study of its kind), but weather changes and other factors hindered him. "One of the difficulties of such research is the variable nature of storms and the responses to them ... but we finally met with success in achieving some of our goals with the evacuation of New Orleans prior to the arrival of Hurricane Ivan," he said. First, Wolshon said, he and fellow researchers were able to qualitatively verify that their predictions of how, when and where congestion would form during an evacuation of New Orleans were largely correct. "Encouraged by these findings we are now working with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development to improve their evacuation plans by testing and, potentially, implementing some of our even 'more progressive' ideas to enhance the preparedness of Louisiana," Wolshon said. He added that, as their ideas are implemented and become more well-known, they will "also be used to protect lives throughout the U.S." and could be applied for homeland security purposes, such as evacuations of major urban centers in case of a terrorist attack.

    With the book closed on 2004, LSU experts have time to regroup, but, according to Keim, they could find themselves even busier during the next several years.

    "One thing that people need to realize is that the last 30 to 40 years have been relatively quiet when it comes to hurricanes, at least compared to the previous 30 or so years," said Keim. "In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, there were more storms than we are accustomed to now, so, by standards of those times, this past season wasn't all that unusual.

    "Long-term forecasts are predicting a return to something more reminiscent of the 30s, 40s and 50s. The next two or three decades are expected to be busier and more active than what we've experienced over the last 40 or so years."

    Source: Eurekalert & others

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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