Hurricane Prediction a Shaky Science

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

"Most major hurricanes become major by going through a rapid intensification. This is the Number 1 area to research. 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 (search) director, told reporters 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 some 70 miles south of the originally projected bull's-eye.

With so much media focus on Tampa and St. Petersburg, many residents in and around Punta Gorda (search) 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 big evacuated cities farther up the coast.

All along, the hurricane center had issued warnings for coastal residents from the Keys all the way 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 noted.

Everyone had "ample warning," Berg said. "It's just unfortunate that certain people didn't evacuate."

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. The difference wouldn't have been nearly as extreme if the storm had been moving perpendicular to the coast, he said.

As for its sudden strength, it's not uncommon for storms in the Gulf of Mexico to rapidly intensify, Berg said. "We're just not that good with it yet. Satellites don't help.

"We always wish we could have more, better guidance," he said. "But with what we had, we did the best we could. Errorwise, we really weren't that bad. It's just that the storm happened to be so intense, that it made a big difference in landfall."

Just a week ago, NASA announced the extended operation of a storm-monitoring satellite through this year's hurricane season. The space agency had sought to decommission the aging Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite, used for studying hurricanes and other severe storms, but granted a temporary reprieve at the request of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.