“We were there on our honeymoon,” Smith said. “We were trying to have fun, not be glued to the TV watching the weather.”
But that meant they missed reports that much of Southwest Florida, not just Tampa, was under threat of hurricane conditions as Ian approached. Their first warning that the hurricane was turning directly toward Fort Myers Beach was a note posted in the empty hotel lobby Tuesday night indicating the hotel was being evacuated.
When conditions turned catastrophic on Wednesday, the Smiths survived by taking refuge in a hotel stairwell.
The danger to the couple and many others who did not evacuate underscores the challenges of communicating forecasts for storms like Ian. Research shows that people often cling to an initial version of forecasts, often missing important updates and changing threats. And meteorologists can struggle to convey the uncertainty in their predictions about a storm’s path and potential, in part because hurricane forecast cones and other communication tools aren’t as useful as they could be for storms like Ian, whose track toward Florida was difficult to pin down even for a day before landing.
The forecast uncertainty even challenged officials charged with making evacuation decisions in Lee County, where Ian made landfall. They now face questions about whether they waited too long.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working to improve communication of uncertain, rapidly changing threats, but the task is not straightforward. It involves refining messages and optimizing graphical information to simplify the complex for very different audiences and keep them informed of important changes. The latter was critical in the case of Ian, as small deviations in the predicted track would significantly change which communities would be affected.
“There were a lot of alternative futures that were possible,” said Kim Klockow-McClain, a researcher at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. “Communication is not that simple when there are many possible outcomes.”
Asked to review how well it communicated storm risks and uncertainties with Ian, National Hurricane Center officials deferred comment to NOAA risk communication experts.
Gina Eosco, a program manager and community scientist at the agency, said it can be a challenge for forecasters to overcome what she called “optimistic bias,” when people focus too much on early forecasts that suggest a low risk of storm impacts and miss of updates that signal new and changing dangers.
“It can trick your brain into thinking you can relax and maybe not pay as much attention to the forecast,” Eosco said. “And so it’s possible that people didn’t hear that message.”
Along with this bias toward optimism, past experiences where dire forecasts didn’t pan out can also prevent people from correctly interpreting the realities of forecasts and storm conditions, she added.
Laura Myers, a senior researcher at the University of Alabama who studies disaster communications, applauded the Hurricane Center’s work in tracking the storm and broadcasting its threats. And she echoed Eosco, saying people often “pin” their expectations on early forecasts and then get caught unaware when storm predictions change.
“[Forecasters] know that people are going to latch onto it and then walk away and not come back to the information,” Myers said. People form their own “risk aversion scale” and go about their daily lives despite on-air meteorologists urging them to check back for updates, according to Myers.
“If they’re shocked by the impact, it’s because they anchored,” she said.
That said, the Hurricane Center’s archive of Ian forecasts shows that as its predictions about the storm’s path shifted, meteorologists didn’t begin emphasizing risks to the area around the eventual landfall until about a day in advance.
It wasn’t until Tuesday morning, while Ian was passing over western Cuba, that the Hurricane Center extended a hurricane warning southward to cover the stretch of southwest Florida coastline that would soon be devastated. Even then, the centerline of the predicted storm track passed through Tampa and was not over Fort Myers until 8 p.m. 23.00 that evening.
In the days leading up to that, what would become ground zero for Ian’s destruction was on the fringes of areas the Hurricane Center warned were in the storm’s path. Areas to the south, including Naples – which endured a record sea level rise – were left out.
That meant some, like the Smiths, were caught unaware of Ian’s intensity. Smith said he did not receive any of the National Weather Service text alerts that are supposed to broadcast imminent dangers to cell phones in their path. And he said he received no alarm from the hotel staff.
“They didn’t knock on our door,” Justin Smith told The Washington Post. “They didn’t call that room. They didn’t do anything. At the time we found out we didn’t have a rental car or anything like that, so we were kind of stuck.”
While some meteorologists suggested it was a failure of the Hurricane Center, others emphasized that it represents a misunderstanding of what the forecast cone actually means. There is a 60 to 70 percent chance that the eye of a storm will remain within the boundaries of the cone — meaning that in about one out of three cases the storm will move outside the cone.
The problem is that the forecast cone is not well designed for unpredictable storms like Ian, Klockow-McClain said. The width of the cone is based on the Hurricane Center’s past errors in storm forecast track predictions, but with Ian it meant an underestimation of potential errors.
“The problem is, with that graphic, we’re communicating about how we’ve done it in the past. We’re not saying a lot about the uncertainty of the current situation,” Klockow-McClain said.
Scientists say the challenge is to engage the public so people understand the broader potential for hurricane impacts even outside the forecast cone. Both Eosco and Myers suggested that more localized warnings could better help people assess their personal risk.
“Our research has shown that most people value the worst-case scenario,” Myers said. “They appreciate knowing that there is a chance that they will be included in the impacts and what the impacts might be.”
Myers said more should be done to educate the public about hurricane meteorology and risks outside of active weather events so that when storms hit, they are not overwhelmed with too much information.
“If you don’t do it up front and don’t do it in as many different ways as you possibly can, you’re going to have problems with understanding,” Myers said. Even then, it is not guaranteed that the warnings will be correctly interpreted.
NOAA has invested heavily in efforts to close gaps in communication and improve public perception and understanding of forecasts, Eosco said. Before and after storms, NOAA conducts a multiwave project to increase their understanding of how well people understood risks and what actions they took during a hurricane, she said.
And it goes along with the Hurricane Center’s work to improve graphics and messaging around hurricane risks, including adjusting forecast cone images to include wind field sizes so people understand how far dangerous conditions will extend. And the center has moved to emphasize that forecast cones are fallible and that risks extend through them and beyond them, though that message doesn’t always get through to the broader public.
“I’m excited that if there’s going to be a hurricane, that we have the ability to learn something from it so we should improve our communications for future storms,” Eosco said. “If we can find an opportunity for hope here to learn something from that so we can improve situations like this and reduce the community impact, that’s the type of chance NOAA wants to take.”
Meena Venkataramanan contributed to this report.