South Carolinians might be reluctant to embrace anything named Hugo that is associated with hurricanes. Few have happy memories of the 1989 monster storm, one of the most destructive of the century.
But residents might think more kindly of HUGO, the short name for the Hurricane Genesis and Outlook model created by researchers at Coastal Carolina University. Scientists intentionally named the model after the massive Category 4 storm that slammed into the Carolina coast and then up the state and into North Carolina before dissipating.
But the purpose of HUGO is to provide better predictions of where hurricanes will hit and how high the subsequent storm surge and flooding might be. The model predicts the path and intensity of hurricanes a full five days before landfall, reducing the so-called cone of uncertainty of where the storm will hit and how powerful it will be.
Researchers who developed HUGO hope it eventually will be adopted by the National Hurricane Center as one of the models it uses to predict the path of future hurricanes. But officials at the center say that, while HUGO looks promising, it needs to be tested first.
That includes seeing if the model would have accurately predicted past storms. Then the model must be tested in live trials to see how it does at predicting future storms.
The Hurricane Center won’t use the model unless it has a successful track record. Meanwhile, though, the model already is up and running at Coastal Carolina, and its predictions will be available to anyone who wants to see them on the university’s website.
The development of HUGO might not seem like a big deal to most of us, just another academic exercise in data reading. But it could incrementally improve our ability to track hurricanes, more accurately predict when and where they will make landfall and how much damage they might do.
We need to compare what storm watchers were able to tell us about the approach of Hurricane Hugo a quarter-century ago with what they can tell us today. Essentially, although climatologists knew Hugo was coming, they were caught largely by surprise by its destructiveness and the path it took.
The forecasts of today, with increasingly narrow projections of the landfall zone, are infinitely better. While there is no way to prevent hurricanes, the more we know about them, the better prepared we can be to deal with them. And that has a lot of practical implications.
For example, accurate predictions of when and where the hurricane will hit can help coastal residents decide whether to flee or stay put, whether to board up homes, whether to stock up on supplies or not. A more accurate prediction also can make an enormous difference in whether states order emergency evacuations and in the amount of traffic they might have to handle.
In other words, the steady improvement in storm forecasting over the years probably has saved lives and property, and helped prevent unnecessary panic on the part of coastal residents everywhere.
For the record, the prediction for this year’s Atlantic hurricane season has improved slightly. In June, experts forecast nine hurricanes, four of them major with sustained winds greater than 110 mph.
But in July, they revised the estimate to eight hurricanes, including three major ones, with a 64 percent probability of at least one major hurricane striking the U.S. coastline.
As always, we hope the prediction is on the high side. But we’re grateful that scientists continue to hone the process of tracking the potentially deadly storms and giving us ample warning that one is on the way.