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Forecasts Still Works in Progress

August 15, 2004|From Associated Press

Hurricane Charley's 145-mph force took forecasters by surprise and showed just how shaky a science it was to predict a storm's intensity -- even with all the latest satellite and radar technology.

"I think that there is the perception out there because of the satellite photos and aircraft data, people do have faith in the technology and sometimes that faith is too much," Max Mayfield, National Hurricane Center director, said Saturday in Miami, 24 hours after Charley slammed into Florida's western coast.

"A lot of people think we can give them a near perfect forecast. We know we can't give them a near perfect forecast."

Charley quickly grew from a Category 2 to a Category 4 storm Friday and its course took a sharp turn to the right, which put it about 70 miles south of the originally projected target.

With so much media focus on big Florida cities, like Tampa and St. Petersburg, many residents in and around Punta Gorda., Fla., were caught unprepared. The hurricane left at least 15 people dead in its wake -- a wake that might not have been nearly as big if the storm had stuck to its original path and struck the evacuated cities farther up the coast.

All along, the hurricane center had issued warnings for coastal residents from the Keys up to Tampa Bay, said hurricane center meteorologist Robbie Berg. "We're kind of surprised that people were caught by surprise," he said.

Although Charley's path had the storm heading toward the Tampa area, Berg said the warning swath encompassed a much larger area -- as far south as Punta Gorda, in fact. The swath takes into account any errors, he said.

"We were not saying Tampa. We were saying the west coast of Florida," Berg said. The media's fixation with "Tampa, Tampa, Tampa," gave the public the wrong idea, he said.

Charley's turn to the right was not a big deviation, but because the hurricane was moving parallel to the coast, it ended up making a big difference in the landfall area, Berg said.

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