NEW ORLEANS -- In the wake of Hurricane Isaac's massive storm surge, a leading expert on emergency management is calling for a major change in the way we measure storms.
Former FEMA director James Lee Witt says Hurricane Isaac could have been a Category 3 or 4 storm if surge had been part of the calculation.
The president of Witt's disaster management firm, Barry Scanlon, says the change needs to be made quickly, before the power of another storm surprises people.
“Unfortunately, we saw with this storm that maybe people didn't take as big an action as they would have for their business or their family because storm surge is something they don't understand,” said Scanlon, who worked for Witt at FEMA from 1993 to 2001.
“They understand the categories of 1 through 5 for hurricane and how that relates to wind levels, and that doesn't necessarily tell them what kind of danger they may be in if you factor in the storm surge.”
As local levees overtopped in Plaquemines Parish in the wee hours of Aug. 29, parish President Billy Nungesser told WWL-TV in an interview that he called a mandatory evacuation because he’d seen storm surge models predicting 9-13 feet of surge.
“We knew we had an 8 1/2 foot levee, we knew we had to get the people out, and that we could see this,” Nungesser said. “This is not a Category 1 storm.”
Nungesser was the first to challenge the idea that Isaac was “just a Category 1 hurricane,” and now experts are backing that up.
“Storm surge is such a big deal, it's so important to public safety, that sometimes it gets lost in the Cat 1, Cat 2, Cat 3 talk," Scanlon said. "We're seeing it now in Plaquemines and other areas, that we think that needs to be a part of the discussion, maybe part of the Saffir-Simpson Scale or some other way for people to communicate so families know what kind of action they should take."
The Saffir-Simpson Scale included a storm surge measure up until 2009 but it was dropped because authorities felt it caused confusion.
The National Hurricane Center is working to reintroduce it in the coming years.
“It's the water, not the wind,” Scanlon said.