Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Saturday, December 1, 2012
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Bye-bye hurricane season 2012
Isaac got attention but fizzled out as it neared the island chain

The 2012 hurricane season ended Friday with hardly any notice in the Florida Keys, as most eyes were focused on the upper East Coast, where Sandy hammered New Jersey and New York.

But Sandy's trail of devastation could have far-reaching impacts on how forecasters present tropical storms to the public, said Bill South, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service on White Street.

"One of the lessons we learned from (Hurricane) Sandy, as an agency, is that we're shifting to more graphical depiction of storm surge," South said. "The inclusion of the storm surge watch and warning -- along with the graphics people are used to seeing with storm tracking -- will be used maybe as early as next year."

Most Keys and South Florida residents are familiar with the "cone" graphic and storm surge warnings, but forecasters found people living in areas with little to no exposure to such powerful storms, such as the New York Tri-State Area, largely ignored or misunderstood the warnings, South said.

Scientists hope that maps depicting how far inland saltwater is expected to reach will be weighed with the same seriousness as other warnings, South said, citing that forecasters need to bridge the communication gap given the flooded subways in New York that many scientists predicted, but seemed to surprise many residents.

"Surge warnings for us in the Keys are not as groundbreaking as, say, along the East Coast, because people are more conditioned to pay attention to those warnings here," South said.

Many forecasters were in conferences this week developing new surge warnings guidelines and deciding how they will look, South said.

The 2012 season produced 19 named stormed, 10 of which became hurricanes, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration press release. Meanwhile, it's been seven years since a major hurricane made landfall in Florida, South said.

That notwithstanding, Keys residents went to storm alert twice in 2012 -- with Hurricane Isaac in August and Hurricane Sandy in October, though the latter never seriously threatened Monroe County.

Hurricane Isaac dumped up to 8 inches of rain in the Upper Keys and the Lower Keys area received between up to 5 inches of rain with gusts up to 55 mph, but it caused little damage.

Despite Hurricane Isaac's lackluster presence, it proved to be a good exercise for county officials, said Monroe County Director of Emergency Management Irene Toner. The slow-moving storm gave officials time to prepare a different plan than normal, which proved to be beneficial, she said.

As the storm spun toward the Keys, Toner and other officials held off issuing a mandatory tourist evacuation. It proved to be the right call as the storm sputtered beyond the Keys, leaving little more than puddles in its wake.

"Isaac was like a real-time exercise and showed us we can amend how we do things," Toner said. "A lot of decisions with storms like Isaac have to be made at the eleventh hour."

Hurricane Sandy, on the other hand, though it left little mark on the Keys, was watched very closely.

"We knew that was a bad storm and there was a lot of uncertainty and loss of sleep early on," Toner said. "We were ready, but fortunately it stayed away from us.

"People here need to remember what (Hurricane) Sandy did to the northeast. People here will say, 'It's OK, it's only a Category 1 or Category 2.' Just remember what it did to New Jersey and New York."

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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