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Researchers Look To Improve Weather Forecasting After Irma


We're keeping an eye on two storms out in the Atlantic. Hurricane Jose might cause problems for the East Coast of the U.S. in the coming days. And forecasters say Tropical Storm Maria is expected to intensify into a hurricane and hit parts of the Caribbean already devastated by Hurricane Irma.

We rely on forecasters to tell us just how bad these storms will be and where they're headed. They're getting better at those kinds of predictions. But predicting the level of flooding remains tricky. And in coastal Georgia, flood predictions from Irma were way off. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Emily Jones reports that forecasters are looking at ways their mistakes could improve future predictions.

EMILY JONES, BYLINE: Forecasters predicted Irma would cause storm surge on the Georgia coast, but they didn't predict how much flooding it would cause and how far inland the water would reach. Chuck Watson of Enki Research studies storms.

CHUCK WATSON: Our models correctly predicted the tides at the Fort Polanski gauge.

JONES: That's the one official tide gauge on the Georgia coast.

WATSON: But there was a lot more water stored in the marshes.

JONES: Up and down the Georgia coast lie wide, grassy salt marshes. The existing model didn't account for all the water stored in them during low tide. Watson believes it's that standing body of water that Irma pushed across roadways and into people's homes. Kelby Phillips lived it firsthand. Late last Sunday night, he thought Irma had spared his one-story house on St. Simons Island on the southern Georgia coast.

KELBY PHILLIPS: The surge started coming in. My dog was looking out the window, and she saw something floating by the house.

JONES: They managed to escape as the water flooded the street, his yard and his house. Phillips isn't sure how deep the water got inside. But it was above the power outlets in the walls.

PHILLIPS: I don't think there's too many things that we can actually say that are usable. Some of the antique wooden items we can salvage because it's all solid wood. But everything's that fabric absorbs ocean water. And it's just totaled. It's tragic.

JONES: On the mainland, Mitzi Kennedy was watching the forecast at her parents' house. That forecast showed Irma turning farther and farther away from coastal Georgia, so she figured they'd be OK. Instead, they got about three and a half feet of water around the marsh front home. And plenty of that water got in.

MITZI KENNEDY: You know, on the TV on the news we were watching, it was going towards the west, where everybody evacuated to. So we thought we were safe.

JONES: Researchers are trying to figure out what mistakes they made when creating the models. They very much want to help homeowners like Kennedy and Phillips avoid being blindsided by future floods. Watson from Enki Research says they learn from every storm, and they'll learn a lot from this one. He's already tried a new simulation.

WATSON: Just a slight change to the model of the amount of friction caused by Spartina, the grass that's in the marshes, and it turns out that that bumped the numbers for flooding inland by about 15 percent, almost 20 percent.

JONES: Watson says he's already testing his new models on typhoons hitting Vietnam and Japan. Eventually, he says, the research could lead to more precise forecasts to help people better prepare. In the meantime, the Kennedy family isn't sure whether to rebuild. They had just finished restoring the house from last year's Hurricane Matthew when Irma hit. And they're worried about the flooding the next hurricane could bring. For NPR News, I'm Emily Jones in Brunswick, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Jones locally hosts Morning Edition and reports on all things coastal Georgia for GPB’s Savannah bureau. Before coming to GPB, she studied broadcast journalism at the Columbia Journalism School and urban history at Brown University. She’s worked for the Wall Street Journal Radio Network, WHYY in Philadelphia, and WBRU and RIPR in Providence. In addition to anchoring and reporting news at WBRU, Emily hosted the alt-rock station’s Retro Lunch as her DJ alter-ego, Domino.

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