Track storms, stay safe using your computer

Hurricane Rita (Courtesy of NOAA)

June 1 started our official annual hurricane season, which will continue until it officially ends Nov. 30. Last year on the upper Texas Gulf Coast, we were fairly lucky in that our region was not struck directly by a major storm, but the memories of Rita, Ike, Katrina, Isaac and other disastrous storms are still fresh in the minds of many. As computing power and information has been increasing exponentially, and computer model forecasting has greatly improved, hurricane warnings and projected tracks have become more accurate with greater advanced warning. Major providers of hurricane information have increased both the quality and availability of online information, allowing users of computers and smart devices to have immediate access to the latest storm projections, enabling better preparations for severe tropical weather. 

This information might be a literal life saver.

There is a plethora of public (government) and private organizations and websites that provide comprehensive current hurricane and tropical weather information. Arguably, the premier source of hurricane and tropical storm information is the National Hurricane Center (nhc.noaa.gov), a Miami based division of the National Weather Service. With the fiscal and material resources available to a federal agency, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) offers the most comprehensive information and data available. For those using mobile devices with Web access, the NHC offers a mobile version of its website at nhc.noaa.gov/mobile. Alerts and updates are also available in text format, by e-mail, and RSS (news) feeds, as well on the major social media networks. The NHC is obviously making this information available as quickly as possible to the widest audience.

On the front page of the NHC website is an abundance of easy to follow information that is usually updated at least every six hours, but more frequently as conditions warrant. Typically at the top of the page is a composite image that shows potential storms that may form within the next 48 hours, as well as the odds of each suspicious area becoming a tropical storm or hurricane during that time period. Clicking on the “Graphical Tropical Outlook,” “Active Storms” or “Marine Forecast” links at the bottom of the “Atlantic Tropical Cyclone Activity” image will open another page with that particular information clearly displayed both as a graphical image, and as a text file explaining what is shown. For those interested in the details of what is going on in the tropics, the Atlantic Marine Forecasts page offers an interactive selection with detailed information on tropical weather in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and on the Atlantic High Seas. When an area of suspicious or threatening tropical weather exists, additional images are displayed below the Atlantic Marine Forecasts display. As I am typing this, there is an area of disturbed weather in the central Gulf displayed in a colorful chart showing land boundaries, color enhanced cloud tops, wind flow, and the projected short term boundaries of the shower and thunderstorm area.

When a tropical depression, tropical storm or hurricane occurs, the NHC provides a massive amount of additional data to the public and the media. On the main NHC webpage, there will be a thumbnail summary of a variety of charts and graphs covering three and five day projected tracks, predicted wind field and wind strength, watches and warnings, and other important information. It is this graphical and text information that is displayed by most of the media and studied by local forecasters and emergency management officials.

For those individuals who prefer independently compiled storm information, there are several major commercial weather services and webpages that prepare their own charts, graphs, and predictions; sometimes these independent tropical projections differ or contradict what the official government agency (the NHC) announces. Probably the best known of these private weather services is the Weather Channel, and its companion website weather.com. The Weather Channel has a dedicated “Hurricane Central” webpage at weather.com/weather/hurricanecentral that typically has videos, stories, maps, charts and other helpful information. The Weather Channel, being a commercial operation, offers what may be the most comprehensive support for smart devices. 

A private, independent weather service widely used by many in the media and corporate world is AccuWeather, which offers its own proprietary graphics and predictions on its hurricane page at accuweather.com/en/hurricane. AccuWeather also has free apps for almost all smart devices. The links for these apps can be found at the bottom right of the AccuWeather webpage. iPhone users might especially appreciate the AccuWeather iPhone app; according to the listing on iTunes, the app was, “Voted ‘Best iPhone App’ by the 2012 Mobie awards.”

For most “smart” devices, there are several highly rated free apps specifically for hurricane tracking. My personal favorites for my Android phone are “Hurricane – American Red Cross” and “Hurricane Software.” The Red Cross hurricane app is one of an integrated series of free Red Cross apps that cover a variety of emergency issues. The Red Cross hurricane app is among the most acclaimed and awarded emergency apps. In addition to providing hurricane information, this Red Cross app provides information on open emergency shelters, can send “I’m safe” alerts to family and friends, provides the ability to use a phone as a flashlight and emergency strobe, and other benefits.

Another specialized free hurricane app I have on my Android phone is “Hurricane Software,” which is a highly rated, free, comprehensive storm information app. According to its website, this “give(s) you the most up to-date and reliable hurricane coordinates data and high resolution maps, satellite images, warning information, storm tracks and more.”

In the infancy of the Internet, in March 1994, I created my own comprehensive, localized weather page, beaumontweather.com. I believe that my non-commercial weather page is the longest, continuously running Beaumont based website. During hurricane season, beaumontweather.com displays storm projections, spaghetti charts (projected tracks from multiple sources), wind maps, storm surge predictions, satellite images, and other storm information, much of it in real-time. My page also displays current local and regional weather conditions, radar animations, emergency information, evacuation maps, and massive amounts of other information. Since this is a non-commercial website, there are no paid ads or other irritants displayed.

With all of the contemporary weather and tropical information available online, the old fashioned paper tracking charts are somewhat obsolete as a prediction tool.

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