During the summer and early fall, hurricanes become a major threat to a significant portion of the U.S. The combination of high winds, heavy rain and potential impact on coastlines can have far-reaching implications for communities, as was evident during storms like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Many agencies look to scientific forecasts to help prepare for natural disasters, but regardless of what these reports say, first responders must formulate plans and protocols to prepare for the worst.

Data contributes to the big picture
While the official hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin runs from June through November, the peak activity occurs between mid-August and late October. According to early projections, the number of storms occurring during the 2014 hurricane season may drop below previous years.

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The Weather Channel predicts there will be 11 named storms throughout the year, down from the long-term average of 12. Of those, five are expected to be hurricanes and two are predicted to reach major hurricane status of category three or more—figures that are also below average. Over the past two decades, only three seasons—1997, 2009 and 2006—had less activity than what is expected for 2014.

Predictions for natural disasters are typically drawn from analysis of weather patterns, temperatures and other historical data. However, this information is limited when making plans for the future. Storms could form over the Atlantic Ocean but never make landfall, or only a single storm could hit land but bring with it tremendous destruction. While there are still many unanswered questions that agencies must address, early forecasts do provide insights that can help manage resources and advance communication to locals.

This year, national weather forecasters will employ color-coded flood maps. These images are designed to shed light on which areas are at risk for flooding during storms. According to Reuters, the idea came from surveys of past and current coastal dwellers. Research showed that civilians often put too much stock in wind strength as opposed to storm surges, and that could lead to delays in evacuation.

“We are not a storm surge-savvy nation,” Jamie Rhome, storm surge specialist for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, told Reuters. “Yet storm surge is responsible for over half the deaths in hurricanes. So you can see why we’re motivated to try something new.”

Anticipating disasters requires cooperation
Although civilians may believe a light hurricane forecast means some relief, the work for first responders does not let up. Training practices take place throughout the year, especially in the weeks leading up to the launch of hurricane season and the days prior to major storms. Emergency workers must get acclimated to the extreme conditions they could encounter, such as high temperatures, howling winds and heavy rain.

The National Guard is already training for disaster circumstances, especially in states most often affected by hurricanes. They cannot handle the rigors of emergency response alone, however, and therefore must practice with local and state agencies to streamline protocols.

“You get to know what everyone’s capabilities are and how you share resources as a team,” said Dexter Accardo, the director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for Louisiana’s St. Tammany’s Parish. “For example, the National Guard has a footprint on just about everything going on in every parish and throughout the state, you have people affiliated with all the state’s emergency support functions.”

First responders who carry out rescue operations also deliver emergency supplies, assist with damage control and help in a wide variety of other ways. As agencies learn how to interact with each other and capitalize on their strengths, they can maximize their capabilities during a storm, reacting in the safest and most efficient way possible. An agency’s ability to mitigate the unknowns of natural disasters can improve their crisis response.

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