The NHC also relies on a Gulf Stream jet, the G4, which flies in front of storms to see what the conditions are like in the storm's path. The Gulf Stream looks for things such as dry air, which can break up a storm. Another plane, the unmanned Global Hawk, can fly directly into a storm and loiter there for a full day.
Best laid plans
Once the storm data is gathered, staffers in the Hurricane Liaison team work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to brief communities and states on the latest threat. The NHC director, Bill Read, will teleconference the White House from the NHC's TV studio.
Inside the NHC's Storm Surge Unit, forecasters try to gauge how waters will rise along the coasts and where the most serious flooding could develop.
"Essentially we are the first step in setting evacuation zones," said Jamie Rhome, the unit's leader.
The Storm Surge unit does not order evacuations; they only say what areas may need to flee. Still, as seen during Hurricane Irene, the unit often faces serious scrutiny when their worst-case scenario predictions don't materialize. But Rhome said he believes the Hurricane Irene evacuations were done "about as good as you can do it," pointing out that no deaths were caused by storm surge, which he called "an amazing feat."
"There's no such thing as a perfect evacuation," Rhome said. "You have to overreact so that you don't lose a life."
But even if the NHC nails their forecast, a major landfalling hurricane will still cause severe devastation to the overdeveloped U.S. coastline.
"Maybe we should change what we allow to be done and built," said NHC director Read. "This is risk, folks."
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