Storm Tracks

" The hurricane forecast for 2006: An active season with 17 named storms, nine of which will reach hurricane strength. Of those, five hurricanes will be between Category 3 and Category 5 storms, with winds from 111 mph to greater than 155 mph, according to William Gray, head of the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University.

 

"The 2006 hurricane names: Alberto, Beryl, Chris, Debby, Ernesto, Florence, Gordon, Helene, Isaac, Joyce, Kirk, Leslie, Michael, Nadine, Oscar, Patty, Rafael, Sandy, Tony, Valerie and William. -- G.M.

Weather, especially bad weather, is what these guys live for.

So last year, when a fast-running, quick-to-develop squall line dropped temperatures and dumped sheets of rain in normally sunny Nassau, the meteorologists attending the annual Bahamas Weather Conference deserted the conference rooms to go outside and play.

This years conference, which marked its 10th anniversary, had none of that freak weather, but much of the discussion among the 150 television meteorologists and weather experts in attendance centered on the violent nature of the 2005 hurricane season.

Taking a look back at the lessons learned from Katrina, Rita, Wilma and the 24 other named storms of 2005 -- and a look ahead to the 2006 hurricane season, which begins June 1 -- was the objective of the conference, hosted by the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism at Our Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island.

Robert Sheets, former director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, assembled the panel of experts, which included Max Mayfield, current NHC director; William Gray of the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University; Will Shaffer of the National Weather Service; and Nicholas Coch, a professor at Queens College in New York.

For those of us forecasting in hurricane-prone cities, this conference is an event we cant miss, said John Morales, chief meteorologist at WSCV in Miami.

It began in 1997 as a gathering of 22 people, with a mission to marry weather with lessons in Bahamian geography.

Although the conference has grown in size and stature since then, the approach has remained the same, with Sheets at the helm of the presentations agenda and the Bahamas as host.

And have the geography lessons succeeded? Are the Bahamas still confused with Bermuda?

We are pleased that meteorologists have taken to heart our message of the Bahamas being an expansive destination that requires accurate reporting with great attention to geography, said Vernice Walkine, director general of the Ministry of Tourism.

While the Bahamas are sometimes threatened, hurricanes rarely affect the entire country, Walkine said.

Indeed, the increased familiarity with the 700-island archipelago that makes up the Bahamas as well as greater knowledge of the Caribbean region as a whole has benefited Bahamian tourism and Bahamian residents, who often get their news and weather reports from U.S. television stations, according to Walkine.

Obie Wilchcombe, minister of tourism, said that the Bahamas was the first Caribbean nation to address hurricanes directly. There has been a substantial increase in accurate reporting of the names and geography of the Bahamas by conference alumni, which has allowed prospective visitors to make sensible decisions about traveling here during hurricane season.

It appears to be a win-win situation all around. For a tourism-dependent region, the message of where a storm is headed and when, what is being done to safeguard lives and the level of preparation can spell the difference between complacency and confidence among residents and visitors.

One popular conference feature is the on-site satellite TV facility, which enables many of the meteorologists attending the event to share information and insight with their viewers at home.

We use the interviews with the weather experts for later stories, which we can call up during the hurricane season, said Denis Phillips, chief meteorologist at WFTS-TV in Tampa.

Launched at this years conference was the iPod podcast center, which carried links to meteorologists interviews and on-site reporting. These podcasts, which featured national coverage and reports by meteorologists from MSNBC, NBCs Today Weekend Edition, CNN and the Weather Channel, proved successful.

Phillips said the podcasts, which could be downloaded for future use, garnered more than 100,000 hits, and lots of podcast visitors crossed over to the Bahamas Web site.

The podcast site, created to distribute weather conference footage, also will serve as an outlet for the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism to distribute visual updates during the hurricane season.

Walkine described this aspect as another proactive approach to handling hurricanes.

The many aspects of hurricanes -- from origin and tracking to surges, water depths and accurate forecasting -- are covered in discussions and seminars with the experts.

Media participants over the years have told me that this conference directly helps them in doing their job relative to the hurricane problem, Sheets said.

Local TV weathermen are the gatekeepers and disseminators of information critical to public safety, and they get to know how and why the system is set up as it is and what impact their forecasting has on communities threatened by hurricanes.

Preparing viewers for a storm is critical, and we have always tried to get that point across, Mayfield said. Prior to Hurricane Charley in 2004, people had short-term memories as to how bad storms could be.

The storm seasons of 2004 and 2005 changed all of that.

Now, theres a genuine fear of and respect for hurricanes, and its easier to get our preparation message across, he said, adding people are taking storm warnings even more seriously after Katrina.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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