Weathering storms is everybody's responsibility. Meteorologists call for public awareness

When it comes to improving weather safety, the most important factor is you. Modern technology has significantly improved both weather forecasting and warning of impending hazards. But that gain has yet to be fully translated into weatherwise living.

There is still too much development in hurricane-prone coastal areas that are hard to evacuate, for example. And there is still too little recognition of the inherent uncertainty of weather forecasts. In short, much more could be done by individuals, community officials, and planners to minimize severe weather risks.

That's why safety-conscious meteorologists are emphasizing public awareness of weather hazards, even as they work to improve their own forecasting and warning skills.

In the current issue of its Bulletin, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) cites dangers for mobile homes subject to strong winds and flash floods.

The society observes ``with grave concern'' that ``over 100,000 mobile homes . . . are damaged each year by windstorms.'' Moreover, debris from unsecured mobile homes is carried off by wind to damage other buildings.

Mobile homes are popular. Somewhere between 11 million and 12 million people live permanently in some 5 to 7 million of these dwellings across the United States. Another million or so mobile homes are occupied part-time. This can be a convenient way of life. But the structures are easily torn apart or tossed about by strong winds.

The AMS urges that more attention be paid to properly anchoring these flimsy structures to the ground, and to providing storm shelters in mobile home parks. Also, mobile home dwellers should be alert to the fact that scenic areas where they often locate, such as along the foot of mountain ranges, are naturally prone to high winds.

Likewise, the society notes that flash-flood hazards are not sufficiently respected. In terms of average annual death toll, these sudden inundations rank first among North American weather hazards -- ahead of lightning, tornadoes, and hurricanes. They also cause extensive damage. In addition to improving forecasting and warning, the AMS urges a nationwide effort to improve inspection of dams, to regulate better the use of flood-prone areas, and a greater general public awareness of the need to prepare f or and manage this flood hazard.

Hurricanes are another storm hazard that urgently demands better public awareness. As both the AMS and the National Weather Service have emphasized, thoughtless development along the Eastern and Gulf coasts of the US expose millions of people to needless risk.

According to such experts as Neil Frank, director of the National Hurricane Center, development is too often allowed with little regard to the ability to evacuate large numbers of people quickly in the event of a hurricane warning.

Wiser and stricter control of coastal development could do more than any other factor to improve hurricane safety in the US, he says.

Weather forecasting and warning have indeed improved over the past three decades. But after initial gains in the 1960s and early '70s, that improvement has been gradual.

Now, new technology promises substantial added gains in short-term forecasting and warning of such severe storm hazards as tornadoes, thunderstorms, and even the wind-shear conditions that sometimes threaten airplanes.

Doppler radar, which can sense motion of wind-driven rain or debris, will be able to help forecasters detect tornadoes before a funnel reaches the ground, something they are not able to do today.

Computer collation and processing of a variety of information from satellites and a dense ground network of radars and other instruments can aid in spotting thunderstorm hazards or flash floods.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Environmental Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colo., are developing such a system, called PROFS (Program for Regional Observing and Forecasting Services). New ways of presenting the wealth of weather data now available, such as the 3-D projections described in the accompanying article, will help both forecasters and forecast users understand the weather scene more quickly.

As these new technologies come into operation during the next decade, forecasters' ability to predict and warn of many types of impending weather hazards should be substantially improved. But if that new capability is to translate into greater weather safety, the public must be prepared to take quick and effective action. And that means having a well-organized and rehearsed community response program, backed by sensible zoning for development.

Not even a perfect weather warning system -- were that possible -- could improve weather safety for those who refuse to live in a weatherwise manner.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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