Originally created 09/21/03

Storm forecasts worry leaders



MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - Forecasters were able to track Hurricane Isabel from its start as a tropical wave deep in the Atlantic Ocean on its trek through the Caribbean, into North Carolina and eventually Canada before the storm fizzled in the cold northern air.

Along the way, they made predictions about where the storm would be five days later. Although Isabel forecasters showed remarkable accuracy - preliminary estimates show the storm made landfall about 200 miles from its original 5-day estimate - some along the coast worry that long-term prognosticating can unnecessarily frighten away tourists.

"In this case, the five-day track didn't hurt us," said Gary Loftus of Coastal Carolina University's Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism. "But the concerns are still there. I still think a five-day window is too broad and unnecessary."

Traditionally, forecasters have used a three-day model to help officials determine when to evacuate an area. This season, that has changed to a five-day forecast. Emergency planners say the extra days are helpful, and the forecasters say the predictions were right on mark.

"The model performed in excellent fashion," said Frank Lepore of the National Hurricane Center. "It's serving the function for which it was designed."

The long-term projections also offer a consistent forecast, said Tom Matheson, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C.

"It takes it out of the hands of private meteorologists," he said.

Despite the accurate Isabel predictions, the five-day forecast, which has an average margin of error of 340 miles, needs to be fine-tuned, said David Nolan, an assistant professor of meteorology at the University of Miami.

"It is premature," Mr. Nolan said. "The average error is so large in five days. But this time, the storm went right there. Everything really worked out."

In the case of Isabel, South Carolina might have benefited when early forecasts showed the storm would pass the coast. Estimates from Coastal Carolina show just a 1 percent drop in occupancy along the Grand Strand last week.

"It is a concern for people making their plans. Why take that risk?" said Helen Hill, the executive director of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Council of Myrtle Beach Organizations is leading a push to go back to the three-day forecasts.

"It was done without any public input," council member John McMillan said of the change. "It's causing a lot of confusion."

The group will meet Oct. 20 in Myrtle Beach to discuss the issue.