Tracking Hurricanes? You’re Probably Doing It Wrong


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The 2022 hurricane season was a harsh teacher. Not because of the number of storms – it was a fairly average year – but because of the tricky nature of the two storms, Hurricanes Ian and Nicole, that hit Florida.

The big lesson to learn from 2022? Experts say it’s to break out of the habit of obsession over the cone, spaghetti models and the storm’s category, and start focusing on hazards such as storm surge warnings, rainfall flooding and even tornadoes.

Ian and Nicole proved why old habits won’t give you an accurate sense of how dangerous a storm is to you, your family and property. They serve as a warning heading into the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Ian slammed Florida at Cayo Costa, just off Fort Myers, on Sept. 28 as a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds. But the real story, according to Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center, was the resulting hazards. The storm pushed 10 to 15 feet of storm surge over barrier islands and into neighborhoods. Inland, it dumped nearly 27 inches of rain in some areas, causing profound flooding outside Orlando.

All told, the storm caused 66 direct fatalities, destroyed 5,000 homes and caused $109.5 billion in damage in Florida – the costliest storm to ever hit the state.

Multiple agencies performed 5,500 rescues, according to Gracia Szczech of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Four million customers lost power. Ian tied the record for the fifth-strongest hurricane to strike the U.S., and was the fastest intensifying hurricane of the 2022 Atlantic season.

Hurricane Nicole, too, shattered norms. It showed up very late in the season – the latest hurricane ever recorded – making landfall as a Category 1 storm at Vero Beach on Nov. 10. Its waves carved away the beach, causing homes in Wilbur-by-the-Sea, 120 miles from the eye, to collapse into the Atlantic.

“A lot of people get enamored with the calendar and fixate on when hurricanes can and can’t come to the area,” Rhome said. “I hear it all the time – ‘It’s October, they don’t come here. It’s November, they don’t come here.’ Another case of – don’t get stuck in the conventional wisdoms. … Although it was late, it certainly packed a decent punch, with U.S. damages of $1 billion.”

Stop focusing on the cone, category and calendar

Who among us doesn’t gaze at spaghetti models, or check on the boundaries of a cone, or poo-poo a Category 1 storm, or assume hurricane season is over after Halloween? 2022 challenged all those habits.

“The season last year had similar lessons from past years, but it really was quite acute during 2022,” said Rhome in reference to Ian’s and Nicole’s behavior.

Both the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service (NWS) are in lockstep in their messaging for 2023: Don’t rely on categories, calendars and cones. The cones they’re referring to are the “track forecast cones” we all obsess over when a storm heads our way. They show where the eye will likely travel, but not the limit of the storm’s fury.

“As a community we are far too focused on models,” Rhome said. “We need to help people shift from just using the cone to using our newer risk-based products.”

Those products are the watches and warnings that the NHC puts out. Watches come out 48 hours before conditions arrive, and warnings 36 hours before conditions arrive.

As for the spaghetti models, Rhome and Robert Molleda, his peer at the National Weather Service, incorporate those models into their decisions to issue watches and warnings.

“We have to pay attention to watches and warnings,” Molleda said. “That is our primary risk communication tool. We are looking at every available piece of information, and then make a decision” about watches and warnings. “They’re the end result of all the work we do.”

If you’re in a warning zone, it means that condition is expected to occur somewhere in there, but not everywhere within the warning.

Rhome also worried that the public focuses too much on whether a storm is Category 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, a wind-speed rating system known as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

“There was way too much emphasis on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. It’s telling you the peak winds anywhere within the storm. But it’s not telling you whether or not those winds are going to impact you. Nor is it telling you anything about the rest of the hazards that come with the storm, namely the water-based hazards, which are historically the biggest killers,” he said.

He points to 2022’s Hurricane Fiona, which was only a Category 1 storm when it hit Puerto Rico, but dumped 32 inches of rain.

Cone addiction

Another issue, said Rhome and Molleda, is our cone addiction.

It’s easy to assume that anything outside the cone is safe. But the cone indicates the area where the eye of the storm is more likely to pass, based on the success of the NHC’s last five years of predictions. The center of the storm has a 2-in-3 chance of falling within the cone, Molleda said.

The destructive muscle of a storm can reach well beyond the cone – it doesn’t tell us how far out the hurricane force winds will extend, or where and how deep storm surge will be.

With Ian, hurricane force winds extended 45 miles on either side of the eye at landfall. Naples, nearly 40 miles from the eye, was buried under five to eight feet of surge.

Let’s look at the east coast of Florida under similar circumstances. If Miami were at the northern edge of the cone, Miami could get the eye. If it did, Boca Raton, 45 miles north and well outside the cone, would get blasted by hurricane-force wind and the storm surge that comes with it.

In a real-world example, 1992’s Category 5 Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Homestead at high tide. Storm surge 16 miles north hit 16 feet. Forty miles north, at Coconut Grove, surge reached 9 feet.

“Just looking at the cone or track models is like looking at the cover of a book and assuming you’ve read the book,” Rhome said. He calls the cone the “executive summary” but you can’t stop there. You need to take in watches and warnings. Rhome, who makes a living understanding these complexities, said, “I cannot deduce my personal risk from a hurricane from the cone alone.”

The warnings make it simple, he says. “If there’s a hurricane warning in your community, that means you need to protect your house, property and family,” Rhome said.

Anatomy of an evacuation

The cone vs. surge warning debate played out in Lee County, where Ian made landfall. Sixty-one people died in Lee County, and 80% of those victims lived in an evacuation zone. Officials there have been criticized for the timing of evacuations.

According to Wink News, Lee County officials ordered the evacuation at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 31 hours before the storm hit. Wink reported that “a study by the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council shows it would take 36 hours to evacuate all of Zone A.” In other words, there may not have been enough time to evacuate.

According to Molleda, the NWS issued a storm surge watch for Lee and Collier counties, the area of highest impact, on Sunday evening, more than 60 hours before landfall. They issued the storm surge warning from Tampa all the way to Flamingo, in Everglades National Park, a day later.

The takeaway, says Molleda, is that the cone can’t be the only lens through which to judge risk.

“Every community is different,” said Mary Blakeney, Palm Beach County’s director of emergency management. “I don’t want to speak to another community’s decision making. I can tell you here, we plan for a safe evacuation during daylight hours, and you’re planning it for the amount of time it would take to get residents safely out of a hazard area to the shelter. In Palm Beach County, we have significant shelter space.”

“We’re always talking about the strength of the storm, but I think we really need to talk about those other hazards,” Blakeney said. “Ian is a perfect example of that. Those storm surge watches and warnings were in place for places well outside of the cone. And that’s the thing, people think, ‘Oh, if I’m not in that cone I’m not going to get storm surge or wind,’ and that’s just not true when you have storms as big as Hurricane Ian.”

When the South Florida Sun Sentinel asked Lee County officials about adjustments to 2023 protocols, the county offered a video recording of public safety director Ben Abes stating that the county is working on an after-action report, and that they expect areas that need improvement.

Surge is the new villain

Rhome sees storm surge as the real story of Hurricane Ian. Ian exposed more people to life-threatening storm surge, 157,000, than all 10 of the impactful storms of 2020 and 2021, and 20 times more than 2018’s Hurricane Michael, which made landfall at Mexico Beach, Florida, as a Category 5 storm.

Of the 66 direct Ian deaths, 41 came from storm surge and 12 from inland flooding. Surge traveled 4 to 6 miles inland in Lee County, said Sandra TapfumaneyiI, of FEMA.

“When we issue a storm surge watch or warning, we mean it,” Rhome said. “It should have the same shock as the hurricane watch or warning.”

Inevitably, surge warnings cover much larger areas than the cone. Ian’s surge warning stretched from the north of Tampa all the way to Flamingo, in Everglades National Park.

When comparing the east and west coasts of Florida, Molleda said that the southeast isn’t quite as vulnerable to extreme storm surge as the southwest coast – the long gradual slope of the Gulf of Mexico means water has nowhere to go but sideways, into land. “Most of the southeast isn’t as vulnerable to very high storm surge, like 15 feet, or something like that,” he said. “But it doesn’t take 15 feet of storm surge to produce significant impacts or cause deaths.”

In the Naples areas, there were three deaths attributed to storm surge, and those particular areas only had about five feet of flooding.

“If a storm surge watch or warning is issued in your area, that means you’re in danger of life-threatening storm surge. That’s the take-away here,” said Molleda.

Rapid intensification

Ian was the fastest intensifying hurricane of the 2022 Atlantic season, gaining 50 mph in just 24 hours.

“We have seen more of those rapidly intensifying systems in the last decade or so,” said Molleda, noting that there are myriad causes.

“There’s some new research suggesting that the chances of rapid intensification may be increasing in a warming climate, but I wouldn’t say the science is a slam dunk,” Rhome said. “Storms could have the opportunity to rapidly intensify more frequently in climate change, but that’s not to say that every storm that rapidly intensifies is due to climate change.”

How does the intensification trend affect warnings?

“If you come out too strong, and the storm doesn’t develop, you’ve done huge damage to your credibility,” said Rhome. “Likewise, if you wait for certainty, you waste precious time.”

“Unfortunately it pushes us more down the path of giving early warnings, but the more you push out in time in sounding the alarm, the higher the probability of a false alarm, or the cry wolf syndrome. It’s a huge dilemma for us. If we sit on a forecast until it’s absolutely certain it’s going to happen, we’ve failed society – we have not given them enough lead time. Likewise, if we warn a community at the earliest indications of something possibly happening, we’re crying wolf and nobody will listen to us anymore. So we’re trying to find that balance.”

As for county decision-making, Blakeney said, “I can tell you that we’re seeing almost every catastrophic landfalling hurricane that’s hit the United States has really formed significantly less than 72 hours before landfall.” As a result, she said that she and her team reviewed their decision-making points for the county. “We were happy to see that a majority of decision-making and a lot of the real tough things about moving people and assets really happens after that 72-hour time frame. So we wouldn’t be behind [schedule] in any way.”

A new Florida reality

Climate change and development have brought a new hurricane reality to the Sunshine State. Sea levels in Southeast Florida, measured by NOAA at Virginia Key, have risen 4.2 inches since Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and 8 inches since 1950. That just gives a storm more ammunition.

Additionally, South Florida gained 30,000 new residents in the past year, according to data from the U.S. Census.

Water temperatures both in the Eastern Atlantic, where tropical systems form, and across the Caribbean, where they strengthen, are up, and natural forces such as Rossby waves, which cause seas to raise and dip slightly over decades, are causing sea levels to increase faster in Florida than in other parts of the U.S.

Broward County’s 1,800 miles of canals are a maze of funnels through which all that extra water pushes and drains.

“The impacts [of Ian and Nicole] reinforce the need for resilience dealing with sea level rise and storm surge,” said Jennifer Jurado, Broward’s chief resilience officer. She said that when the county started working on seawall ordinances in 2017, it was the first time they had formally incorporated sea level rise into plans for county codes and land use plans. She said the county has begun to incorporate new Federal Emergency Management Agency data on flooding, as well as data on sea level rise, into their evacuation plans.

One concern is that when a storm hits, surge and sea level rise will inundate canals and rivers, and block any drainage needed for rainfall flooding. “We have been reviewing the early model output in the last several weeks, and we will apply that in our adaptation planning, and hope to have the work complete this time next year,” she said.

Blakeney is addressing sea level rise as well. “We’re changing our response and actions based on trends in all types of hazards, whether it’s more people moving into an evacuation zone, or an important street that floods during heavy rainfall or higher tides. So we look at those things when we talk about evacuating people or telling them it’s safe to return.”

Florida Power & Light said that as part of its Storm Secure Underground Program, which swaps overhead power lines for underground lines, it has completed 237 projects in Broward and has 100 more planned for 2023, and 267 projects in Palm Beach County, with 88 planned for 2023.

Each project is about 4/10th of a mile of lines. FPL said they select neighborhoods for such projects “based on a history of outages during past hurricanes, interruptions caused by trees and vegetation and other metrics.”

Words of advice

Molleda’s advice for 2023 is to watch out for all hazards, not just wind. Rainfall flooding and tornadoes can occur far from the storm’s track. In fact, Ian, as far away as it was, spawned a tornado with gusts of more than 100 mph in Palm Beach County.

“When a hurricane of that magnitude makes landfall, the impacts are going to be pretty severe, for not just one hazard, but for multiple hazards,” Molleda said.

“We have to make sure that we know if we live in an evacuation zone,” Molleda said. Blakeney concurred. “We have a lot of new residents,” said Blakeney. “And some of them may not know what can happen in a hurricane, and all of those other hazards – the heavy rainfall, the potential for tornadoes, the wind, the storm surge, so we need to make sure everybody is prepared.”

She said that residents should know, right now, if they live in a hurricane evacuation zone.

To find out, search for “Know Your Zone” tab at and type in your address to see if you’re in a hurricane evacuation zone and/or a flood zone. The Broward County zones can be found at

Rhome, who lives in Broward, had some advice as well.

“A lot of people on the southeast coast of Florida have this working narrative that because we have not had a direct impact in a long time, that somehow infers a lack of risk. But the longer we go without a direct landfall impact from a major hurricane, the more our risk has gone up,” he said. “And we’re long, long, long overdue.”

And though the outlooks for the 2023 hurricane season includes a possible El Niño, which would, in theory, steer storms north, he thinks it’s a distraction.

“Hurricane Andrew happened in an El Niño year. El Niños are not going to stop hurricanes. El Niño may reduce total numbers, but it doesn’t stop them from coming to your community.”

© 2023 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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