USF prepares for hurricane season

Although Florida is home to sandy beaches and sunny weather, every year the state may play host to an unwelcomed visitor – hurricanes. And according to scientists, this year’s season is expected to be the most active in more than a century.

Over the past century, hurricane season, which officially began Tuesday and will end Nov. 30, has meant a 52 percent probability that at least one major hurricane will land on the U.S. coast.

However, researchers at Colorado State University have issued a report that boosts chances to 76 percent – labeling the season “active to extremely active,” according to standards set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

According to NOAA, there is a 70 percent chance that 14 to 23 named storms with winds of at least 39 mph, 8 to 14 hurricanes with winds of at least 74 mph and 3 to 7 major hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph, will cross the Atlantic basin this season.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, a hurricane warning is issued when winds reach at least 74 mph and are expected to touch land within 24 hours.

Jennifer Collins, an assistant professor of geography at USF and president of the West Central Florida American Meteorological Society (AMS), said this increase in activity could be the result of a rise in oceanic temperatures, which she said are warmer than usual in the tropical Atlantic.

Collins, whose research on the inactive 2009 hurricane season will be published in the National Weather Association’s “Weather Digest,” said the predictions indicate that we have moved out of the El Nio phase, which kept activity down with strong wind conditions during the latter half of the year.

“The strong wind shear in an El Nio … would inhibit strong formation of hurricanes,” Collins said. She said wind shear is an atmospheric change in the speed or direction of wind.

“Instead we are in neutral conditions in the tropical Pacific and La Nia conditions are becoming increasingly likely, making it less likely that wind shear will tear storms apart,” she said.

According to NOAA, La Nia is associated with cooler than normal water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean.

To prepare for impending hurricanes, program director of Traffic Operations and Safety at the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) Pei-Sung Lin said students should first know which evacuation zone they are located in.

Evacuation zone maps of Florida are available on the Hillsborough County website under the hurricane information tab. USF is in evacuation zone 11.

Lin said students should pay attention to evacuation routes when traveling on interstate highways. A counter flow, or one-way flow of traffic on the highways, can be implemented for smoother evacuations.

To assist students on campus, the USF Division of Public Safety created a five-day plan to prepare for an oncoming hurricane, which was updated in June 2009 and made available on the USF website.

A “Continuity of Operations Plan” (COOP) was also established to get the University up and running after a hurricane passes through.

“We’ve got strong capability of recovery and sustainability after a storm through COOP,” said University deputy of police J.D. Withrow. “We have enough fuel on hand to run generators for two weeks.”

Withrow said that if USF gets hit, the Sun Dome, the hospital and the Police Department each have generators.

In the event that USF loses power, “one of the key things we’d want to get restored … is the Internet,” said assistant Vice President of Public Safety Alana Ennis. “If there was debris, we’d want to clean that up, too.”

Withrow said hurricanes are much easier to prepare for than natural disasters like tornadoes because of their slow-moving nature.

“If we’re anywhere in the cone of uncertainty, we’re prepared,” he said. “Each day, we have specific actions in which we’re involved.”

University Police suspend all campus activities two days before a hurricane is expected to affect campus. However, Withrow said campus couldn’t be shut down completely because of residential students who may have nowhere else to go.

“For international students or anyone else who resides on campus and cannot leave, one section of Pizzo Elementary School is opened (as a shelter),” Withrow said.