The Five Best Public Data Sources For Managing Tropical Storm Risk

Guy Walker
Jul 23 · 7 min read
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Within just over a month, this year’s Atlantic Hurricane season has already seen six named storms. This intensity currently matches the record-breaking 2005 hurricane season, which included Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.

Additionally, in recent days the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has also announced that there is a 50% to 55% chance that La Niña conditions could develop this Autumn. Such atmospheric patterns would further favour a “very active season” for hurricanes according to The Weather Company’s chief meteorologist, Dr. Todd Crawford.

However, due to Covid-19 many organisations have sidelined their typical preparation and response plans for hurricane season. One pivotal aspect of tropical storm preparation is monitoring critical data sources. With this year’s hurricane season likely to have more named storms than average, we have highlighted some of the best data sources for managing tropical storm risk.

1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

NOAA’s formation in 1970 was driven by a desire to unify and improve data, research, forecasts and warning systems relating to earth sciences. It is composed of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and the National Weather Service (NWS- see below) among other bodies, employs over 11,000 people, and collects and analyses one of the largest streams of observation data on earth. For this reason, NOAA, which publicly releases numerous tropical storm related data feeds, is seen as one of the most reliable and valuable sources of tropical storm information.

For organisations wishing to monitor hurricanes, the NHC portal is one of the most commonly used data sources it produces. It provides real-time updates on current disturbances, the chance of tropical storm formation, and the current classification of weather events. Additionally, along with their two and five day forecasts, it allows organisations to consider not only the real-time location of a storm, but also its predicted path and the probability of it developing into a major threat.

NOAA also offers a wider range of its data to download or stream through their GIS portal or historical archives. This data can prove invaluable for users to track, prepare and mitigate risks associated with tropical storms.

2. National Weather Service (NWS)

Originally known as the United States Weather Bureau, NWS is one of the most important of NOAA’s agencies. For over a century it has provided climatic data, forecasts and warnings for individuals and organisations in the US.

The NWS portal is particularly valuable for hurricane season. It records and analyses over 76 billion weather observations annually, and unlike many other data sources, it incorporates a wide range of environmental threats, many of which can be triggered by tropical storms.

Beyond its forecasting and monitoring technologies, the NWS also plays a crucial role in warning services. Using its forecasting technology, the agency is responsible for issuing watches and warnings on potential hazards, from storm surges to wildfires, and from tsunamis to blizzards, among other critical events. For this they have a warnings GIS portal, a network of 1025 radio stations across all 50 states and also have their emergency data integrated into other agencies’ portals and warning systems, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (FEMA IPAWS).

The combination of these NWS portals and data sources allow organisations to evaluate both primary and secondary threats associated with tropical storms, keep updated with real-time and forecasted data, and follow emergency warnings that could affect themselves or their clients.

3. United States Geological Survey (USGS)

While typically associated with seismic events, USGS provides a range of other sensors which can be monitored for tropical storm risks. In particular, the organisation works alongside the NOAA and FEMA in monitoring, analysing and forecasting coastal erosion, storm surges and inland flooding.

In order to help businesses and individuals monitor and mitigate against the hydrological risks associated with tropical storms, USGS has integrated many of its data feeds into public portals. These portals incorporate live river levels, temperatures and flows from over 10,000 gauges across the US waterway network. Additionally, they also include storm surge monitoring data through permanent coastal and ocean-based storm surge gauges, as well as temporary ones they install prior to major tropical storm events.

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Consequently, a range of portals draw on this data and present it in an accessible way for organisations to monitor and mitigate against tropical storm risk. NOAA utilises the USGS river gauge sensors to provide users an interactive map of real-time river levels, which can be used to identify rivers which are about to flood or are flooding. A secondary portal by USGS puts these river gauge readings into perspective, but comparing data to previous years, allowing users to identify abnormal river heights.

However, the most useful portal for planning ahead for tropical storm associated floods, is the FEMA Flood Map Service Center which has been constructed using USGS data. Their portal allows companies and individuals to easily visualise the flood vulnerability of their assets. By seeing high risk locations, floodway maps, levees and other important data unified in one dashboard, it allows organisations to review critical risk plans such as evacuation methods, insurance considerations and flood prevention measures.

4. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

While NOAA’s and USGS’s data typically focuses on scientific monitoring and forecasting of hurricane’s and their associated risks, FEMA primarily integrates their data to focus on the communication and human-risk aspect of a tropical storm event. The organisation is an agency of the Department of Homeland Security and its primary purpose is to coordinate the response to any US disaster that will, or has, overwhelmed state or local resources.

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Today in the US, FEMA is widely recognised for their role in emergency alert systems. In 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) was established. FEMA oversees this system, which aggregates alert information from NOAA, NWS and local authorities to ensure timely notifications on crisis events. While aspects of this system, such as Wireless Emergency Alerts, are automatically sent to mobile phones in close proximity to risks, there are a number of other FEMA data sources organisations can use for tropical storm alerts and employee safety.

Government websites such as ready.gov recommend using the FEMA mobile app. It provides instant real-time alerts, as well as other recommendations and resources that may be useful for tropical storm preparedness and response.

Additionally, in partnership with the American Red Cross, FEMA also provides real-time emergency shelter locations across the country. The data is available on FEMA’s mobile app, as well as a portal provided by the American Red Cross. By monitoring this data, it allows organisations to construct contingency plans prior to tropical storms, whilst keeping their employees abreast of the latest safety and well-being advice.

5. PowerOutage.us

A final crucial data source that is often overlooked during hurricane season is PowerOutage.us. The website freely compiles, records and aggregates live power data from across the US and presents it via a single portal. As one of the most reliable and complete sources of power related data in the US, it is used by organisations ranging from the US military to AT&T. Users can easily see where outages are occurring down to a local level, how many customers are affected and see which providers are seeing outages.

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While a generally useful data source, it proved particularly valuable during storm events such as Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Matthew. The chance of a major power outage is significantly higher during a tropical storm and an outage could impact every aspect of an organisation, from disrupting its supply chain to cutting off power for local transport networks which are used by employees to access critical business sites.

Whilst tropical storms often have the largest impact on power outages, other extreme events, such as wildfires, can indirectly lead to widespread outages, as seen on numerous occasions in California where Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has preemptively cut off power to millions of customers due to the risk of high winds downing power lines which can, at times, cause wildfires.


With peak hurricane season approaching, it is important for organisations to be prepared. Last year’s hurricane season alone saw 119 people killed and over $12 billion worth of damage.

One of the first steps organisations can take in mitigating the effects of tropical storms is using these four data sources to consider which of their assets, employees or critical business functions are, or could be, in proximity to a high impact storm event.

At WatchKeeper International, our situational awareness platform unifies all these sources, along with a range of other natural disaster and violent incident risk data feeds, into a common operating picture. Leveraging location intelligence and our advanced alerting engine, WatchKeeper automates alerts to security, business continuity and supply chain risk managers when an adverse event occurs in close proximity to a client’s assets, employees or critical business functions.

To find out more about how WatchKeeper can help your organisation, prepare, mitigate and respond to this year’s hurricane season, please visit www.watchkeeperintl.com or email tropicalstorms@watchkeeperintl.com

WatchKeeper

Visualise, track and protect critical operations.

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