Here's how to understand forecast information

Knowledge is power, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers this advice on how to interpret news this hurricane season.

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  • | 12:32 p.m. May 16, 2024
Satellite image of a tropical storm - hurricane or cyclone or typhoon. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.
Satellite image of a tropical storm - hurricane or cyclone or typhoon. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.
Mikolaj Niemczewski - stock.adob
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National Weather Service forecast products can tell you a lot about what is expected to happen with a storm — including the storm’s paths, rainfall amounts and wind speeds. There is a lot of information available days ahead of a storm, and it is important to understand what it means.

Rely on official forecasts and well-established media partners in the Weather Enterprise. Be cautious of sensational headlines and instead look for reliable sources to determine a storm’s potential impacts.

Use the official National Hurricane Center Forecast. These hurricane specialists access a variety of data (models, aircraft, satellite) to make the most accurate forecasts possible. Meteorologists at local NWS offices understand which locations in your area are most vulnerable to storm surge, flooding and wind.

Always check to make sure you have the latest forecast information.

Make sure to have Wireless Emergency Alerts enabled on your phone to receive warnings.

In general, a watch means impacts are possible; a warning means impacts are expected or happening. Different hazards and alerts require different responses:

• A Hurricane Watch means hurricane conditions are possible somewhere within the watch area, with tropical-storm-force winds beginning within the next 48 hours. Prepare by boarding up windows and moving loose items indoors and make sure your emergency kit is ready. 

• A Hurricane Warning means hurricane conditions  are expected somewhere within the warning area, with tropical-storm-force winds beginning within 36 hours. Seek shelter in a sturdy structure or evacuate if ordered.

• A Tropical Storm Watch means tropical storm conditions are possible within the next 48 hours; while a Tropical Storm Warning means they are expected somewhere within the warning area. Remember: A tropical system does not have to reach hurricane strength to be deadly.

• A Storm Surge Watch means the possibility of life-threatening inundation generally within 48 hours; and a Storm Surge Warning means the danger of life-threatening inundation generally within 36 hours. In either case, promptly follow evacuation and other instructions from local officials.

• An Extreme Wind Warning means extreme hurricane winds (115-plus mph) are imminent or happening. Take immediate shelter in an interior portion of a well-built structure.

• A Flash Flood Warning means dangerous flash flooding is expected. Move to higher ground, and never walk or drive through floodwater. A Flash Flood Emergency is issued for exceedingly rare situations when a severe threat to human life and catastrophic damage is happening or about to happen. Do not attempt to travel unless you are under an evacuation order or your life is imminently at risk.

• A Flood Watch means flooding is possible. Stay tuned to trusted news sources and be ready to seek higher ground. A Flood Warning means flooding is happening or about to happen: move to higher ground immediately.

• A Tornado Watch means a tornado is possible. Know your safe place and be ready to act quickly if a warning is issued. A Tornado Warning means a tornado is happening or about to happen. Immediately seek shelter in your safe place.

Do not focus on a specific storm category. All hurricanes and tropical storms can bring life-threatening storm surge, inland flooding and damaging winds. The storm’s scale only tells you about the strongest winds near the center of the storm and does not tell you about potentially life-threatening flooding from storm surge or rain. Remain vigilant — even if the winds have weakened and the storm becomes a lower category or tropical storm. Rainfall and storm surge impacts often continue.

Impacts can be felt far from the storm’s center — even well inland and outside the National Hurricane Center Forecast Cone. Remember: The storm itself can stretch well beyond the  cone, and so can the impacts.

The forecast cone shows the probable forecast track of the center of the storm. This means that the storm’s center will probably travel somewhere within the cone’s boundaries. (Historically, the storm’s center has remained within the forecasted cone roughly two-thirds of the time.) The cone does not represent the size of the storm in any way.


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