Tropical Storm Erika exposed our “warts” emergency manager says

After escaping hurricanes for nearly a decade, Florida in August found itself engulfed in the cone of uncertainty for what was expected to be a Category 1 storm. A state of emergency was declared, water disappeared from store shelves and shutters went up.

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But Tropical Storm Erika never mustered hurricane strength, and nearly a year later, meteorologists are still discussing the difficulties in predicting the frail little cyclone’s next move and how they could have better communicated the lack of confidence they had in their own forecast.

“Every season has its challenging storms, and certainly Erika last year was a key example,” said Robert Molleda, the National Weather Service’s warning coordination meteorologist, who spoke on a panel Thursday at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Orlando. “It was a real challenge conveying the low probabilities.”

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Meteorologists never had much faith that Erika would overpower El Nino-enhanced wind shear to become something more, but computer models pumped it up to hurricane status with a bull’s-eye on Florida in the five-day forecast track. Because Erika’s ultimate power was unclear, its path was also muddled – dodging right, then left, before ultimately fizzling out over Hispaniola’s Chaine de la Selle mountain range.

Even after its demise, Palm Beach County was still expected to get heavy downpours from Erika’s remnants. The forecast triggered a flood watch, which was yanked when NWS meteorologists in Miami realized the torrents weren’t coming.

The concern is that the damage from Erika in Florida wasn’t to life or property. It was psychological as people reacted viscerally to a perceived emergency, even though a hurricane watch and warning were never issued for the state.

In the end, Palm Beach County Emergency Management Director Bill Johnson said Erika exposed “warts,” including with residents.

“I was disappointed in our community’s response,” he said. “With all the talk of preparation, you would think by August everyone would have their hurricane kits ready, and yet we were seeing reports of grocery store shelves being emptied.”

Read the full story a about Hurricane Erika in today’s Palm Beach Post. 

Employees move four by eight foot sheets of plywood to lower levels during early preparation for customers needing supplies for Tropical Storm Erika at the Home Depot in Jupiter on August 26, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Employees move four by eight foot sheets of plywood to lower levels during early preparation for customers needing supplies for Tropical Storm Erika at the Home Depot in Jupiter on August 26, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

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