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Hurricane Ian as it reaches Florida in 2022.

Hurricane Ian as it approaches Florida in 2022. Photo from NASA.

Hurricane preparedness takes many forms - USF providing support on all fronts

By Matthew Cimitile and Marc Masferrer, University Communications and Marketing, and Dyllan Furness, College of Marine Science

When a hurricane makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico, it has the potential to impact the entire Tampa Bay region. 

That’s why researchers at USF’s campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee are involved in a number of innovative endeavors and public initiatives to better prepare communities for the next storm. 

Marine scientists are fine-tuning high-quality models, incorporating data from ocean circulation to aid forecasting efforts. Social scientists are studying how local organizations have performed in helping displaced populations to better equip them for the next wave. And those in risk management seek to inform people on how to protect themselves from rising costs associated with such storms. 

Across the region, USF is investigating solutions and disseminating critical information to create a better prepared Tampa Bay.

Modeling storm surge when landfall is imminent

While hurricanes are categorized by wind speed, water is what often gives them their deadly power. 

Storm surge — the sudden rise in water level typically associated with low-pressure weather systems — has been shown to account for nearly half of all fatalities from tropical storms.

Researchers in the Ocean Circulation Lab at the USF College of Marine Science are hard at work improving storm surge forecasting along the west coast of Florida. First developed by the lab more than a decade ago, the West Florida Coastal Ocean Model (WFCOM) and Tampa Bay Coastal Ocean Model (TBCOM) can now forecast water levels days before hurricane landfall. 

“Our models are unique in that they are high-resolution and fully three-dimensional, even for shallow water regions,” said Yonggang Liu, associate research professor and director of the Ocean Circulation Lab. “Realistic simulation of coastal ocean circulation is key for forecasting storm surge, which can be so devastating for coastal communities.”

A gif animation showing the new WFCOM simulated storm surges along the West Florida Shelf coast. By Ocean Circulation Lab.

As Category 5 Hurricane Ian approached Florida in September 2022, Liu monitored the models from his home in St. Petersburg. While TBCOM predicted negative storm surge in Tampa Bay, WFCOM, which covers the larger coastal region of the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, predicted significant storm surge in Lee and Collier counties. Buoy and tide-gauge data later validated both predictions.

Liu had the opportunity to test the models again a year later when Hurricane Idalia began to brew in the Gulf of Mexico. As the Category 4 storm buzzed along the west coast of Florida, TBCOM and WFCOM accurately predicted storm surge of about 1.5 meters in Tampa Bay and about 2 meters at Cedar Key.

The Ocean Circulation Lab was launched in 1984 by Distinguished University Professor Emeritus Robert Weisberg and has since established itself as a leader in circulation observing and modeling.

"Our lab has been maintaining the coordinated observing and modeling program for many years,” Liu said. “The accuracy we see in these models today is the product of sustained effort from Dr. Weisberg and other scientists in the Ocean Circulation Lab. In terms of coastal implications for our region, you won’t find anything better than these models.”

Who you gonna call? The Storm Squad

Understanding where potential surge and flooding may occur is vital. So is ensuring people, especially in vulnerable communities, know that information. 

That is where the “storm squad” comes in. For the south St. Petersburg community, the “storm squad” consists of trusted neighborhood leaders, such as pastors, who distribute critical information leading up to an approaching hurricane and serve as liaisons between government officials and the community in the event of an emergency. 

Assisting the “storm squad,” is the Community Resilience Information System (CRIS). Developed by USF St. Petersburg’s Initiative on Coastal Adaptation and Resilience (iCAR), this interactive tool uses citizen engagement and crowdsourced data from St. Petersburg residents to identify flooding risks and inform policy.

Street flooding

Streets in Southwest Florida flooded after Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017. Photo courtesy of iCAR.

Residents can input information related to issues such as flooding and power outages. The information can be used by government officials and neighborhood leaders to make decisions about policy and resource allocation. The data also allows emergency managers to identify areas with a large concentration of people who may need transportation assistance or are reliant on power for medical needs during and after an emergency.

A $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant is now allowing researchers to develop the CRIS-HAZARD app that combines volunteered geographic information and community crowdsourced data, such as photos and videos, with near real-time information on flooding. Using dynamic modeling and mapping tools, including artificial intelligence, the app will identify and extract estimated water elevation for near real-time flood models.

“The overall goal of the storm squad team and CRIS is to empower the community, and overtime we hope reduce marginalization,” said Barnali Dixon, geosciences professor and executive director of iCAR.

Strength training for disaster relief

After Hurricanes Maria and Ian devastated Puerto Rico and Ft. Myers, several regions in Florida received a large influx of people displaced by the storms. 

When such events happen, charitable organizations and faith-based groups can become the first line of disaster relief. Robin Ersing, director of USF’s School of Public Affairs, wanted to know how well Tampa Bay organizations functioned in disaster relief situations outside their normal operations.

Ersing conducted interviews and focus groups with representatives from about 35 local and grassroot organizations to hear about the successes, challenges and gaps in meeting the needs of those who were displaced after Maria. 

“Essentially, we wanted to know what worked and what didn’t in order to develop education, resource and training recommendations to strengthen the next response,” she said.

These Tampa Bay community organizations responded by providing essential needs for disaster survivors –from food and shelter, to clothing and health care. But it also became evident that some organizations were better equipped than others to be a one-stop-shop for those displaced. 

“Everyone has good intentions and wants to help. But non-profit and community groups need to find out if disaster relief is what they are prepared for or is there a secondary role they can play to support front-line organizations,” Ersing said.

Other key recommendations to organizations include:

  • Establish relationships with entities, such as emergency management and school systems, before a storm and work collaboratively throughout the response.
  • Ensure staff know of their organization’s emergency operations plans and regularly conduct practice exercises.
  • Have bilingual speakers on staff.
  • Train frontline workers to recognize signs of trauma in displaced individuals and for organizations to recognize signs of trauma in staff assisting in disaster relief.

Results from this work were published in a report to help local organizations incorporate lessons learned into their disaster response practices. Ersing is now working to provide this information to organizations and communities across Florida that are likely to assist future disaster survivors and displaced individuals. 

Protection from rising… premiums

Forecasts that the 2024 hurricane season could be especially brutal might make Florida homeowners fearful of rising costs. However, Randy Dumm, director of The Baldwin Group School of Risk Management and Insurance, said there is not a direct link between forecasts and what it costs to protect your home.

Dumm, who has been studying and making recommendations on how to improve the catastrophic insurance market in Florida for more than two decades, said there are steps homeowners can take now to ensure they have adequate and affordable coverage when buying or renewing policies. 

Homeowners or their agent can shop around for a better deal. Depending on how risk averse they are, they could consider buying a policy with lower premiums – with the understanding it might cost them much more later to pay a higher deductible on a claim. Homeowners also can ask their agent to review if they are receiving all the premium credits and discounts available for roof or other improvements they’ve made to their home.

While the effect of home improvements on premiums can be marginal, Dumm recommends homeowners check out incentives available through the state’s My Safe Florida Home program. This program helps Floridians pay for the hardening of their homes and could save them much more later if a storm hits. Last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that will add $200 million to the program for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

It’s all about properly managing the risks of living in Florida during hurricane season. As a Florida-based program, Dumm said The Baldwin Group School of Risk Management and Insurance is perfectly situated to conduct research on the various economic, psychological and social forces that can affect the insurance market.

“We're a risk-based program sitting in the heart of the largest catastrophic wind market in the world,” he said. "I can't think of a more interesting market to research or study catastrophic risk."

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