The last time a hurricane struck Florida, we were in the midst of a Shaq attack, largely oblivious to a phenom in Cleveland named LeBron becoming the youngest player to score more than 50 points in a pro basketball game. Jeb Bush was governor. And about 27,000 Miami-Dade first-graders hadn’t even been born.
That may seem like ages ago in South Florida years. But in hurricane time, it’s just a lucky streak that forecasters warn could end anytime over the next six-month hurricane season, which officially opened Sunday.
“We’re very vulnerable, so it’s a matter of when, not if,” said National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb.
Florida, hit more times than any other state, has not had a hurricane in eight straight seasons — a desperately needed break after the worst two back-to-back years on record. But since then, there have been plenty of near misses fired from the Atlantic Basin, which experts say remains in a cycle of high activity.
In 2004, four hurricanes made landfall — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — the most recorded for the state in a single year. And 2005 was no cake walk: Three hurricanes crossed Florida that year including Katrina, on its fatal course to New Orleans, and Wilma, which slogged across the Everglades to leave a record-breaking 98 percent of South Florida in the dark and cause $20.6 billion in damage.
But since 2005, every hurricane has veered away from the peninsula — either skirting the coast like Superstorm Sandy or simply fizzling. But the state has not escaped unscathed. Enough tropical storms made landfall to ring up millions in damages.
In 2008, Tropical Storm Fay zigzagged its way to a record four landfalls in the state, causing five deaths and inflicting $560 million in damage. In 2012, Hurricane Isaac never made landfall in Florida, but its soggy tail whacked Palm Beach County, unleashing massive flooding that stranded some western residents for up to two days. Price: $71 million. That same year, Tropical Storm Debby dropped nearly 30 inches of rain on North Florida and the Panhandle, sending the Sopchoppy River over its banks and costing $250 million.
Meanwhile, the Gulf and the Caribbean got hammered.
In 2007, Noel killed 163 people in Hispaniola but then took a turn after it crossed Cuba and missed Florida. Three storms marched across the Gulf the next year: First, Dolly slammed Texas with 16 inches of rain, followed by Gustav in Louisiana and finally Ike, a massive storm that hit the entire coast from Louisiana west to Corpus Christi, Texas. Altogether, they generated more than $34 billion in damage.
In 2009, a small late-season hurricane named Ida made a beeline for Nicaragua from the Southwest Caribbean, leaving about 40,000 homeless before making landfall in Alabama and heading up the southeast coast to become a nor’easter.
During each of the next three years, 19 named storms stumbled around the North Atlantic, ricocheting off the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean. In 2010, five hurricanes hit Mexico, killing dozens and costing $7 billion.
And then there’s Sandy, the hurricane that skipped past Florida to devastate a swath of the Northeast after becoming a superstorm when it collided with a winter storm late in 2012.
Officially, this year is expected to be relatively quiet.
Forecasters say the El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific should keep the number of named storms to between eight and 13. They predict that three to six may become hurricanes and that two could grow into major storms. But, as forecasters emphasize every year, it only takes one big storm to make a bad year. And they have no bigger reminder than Sandy, which spun out of a frenzied year in which 10 hurricanes formed but only one made headlines.
“Sandy reminded us that loss of life and property during a tropical storm doesn’t necessarily come about from wind and rain. It comes from storm surge,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Director Kathryn Sullivan.
Sandy proved to be a moment of reckoning for coastal states. Katrina may have shed light on the dangers of flooding, but the bowl-shaped topography of New Orleans made it seem uniquely vulnerable. In the wake of Sandy’s 72 deaths in the U.S. and $50 billion in damage, the country undertook a serious reassessment. Efforts were made to streamline emergency response and relief. And Congress agreed to spend $476 million on improved forecasting tools, including storm surge maps the hurricane center will roll out this year from its storm-proof bunker on Florida International University’s campus.
The maps, in real-time and interactive, will go up on the center’s website (www.nhc.noaa.gov) about an hour after it issues warnings and watches. That’s about 48 hours before winds are expected to make landfall, said Jamie Rhome, who heads the center’s storm surge unit. The information will be updated every six hours and show where water may go and how high it might rise. Designers worked hard to make them user-friendly, said Rhome, who compared their operation with Google maps.
“It will have a local feel, but you won’t be able to zoom in and out of a specific home,” he said.
The information has been available in text form for years, he said. But until recently, forecasters didn’t have the computer power needed to model so much information. The maps have to accommodate not only the contours of the coastline — both above ground and under water — but the intensity of a storm, where it lands, how fast it is moving, the angle it approaches and the timing of tides.
Max Mayfield, a former director of the hurricane center and hurricane specialist with WPLG-ABC 10, said the maps, which he began asking for when he was director between 2000 and 2007, are long overdue.
“Most people evacuate because of the wind, but by far the vast majority of people — in fact, 88 percent — die from water,” he said.
When Sandy made landfall in October 2012 on the south shore of New Jersey, its tropical storm-force winds extended about 1,000 miles. Water rose along the entire East Coast, from Florida to Maine, NOAA later reported. Tide gauges at the Battery in Manhattan and on Staten Island recorded water levels about nine feet above the lowest-lying spots on the shoreline. At Sandy Hook in New Jersey, a gauge measured eight feet before it failed.
NOAA repeatedly issued warnings about the surge. Gary Szatkowski, a meteorologist stationed at a weather station in Mount Holly, New Jersey, where 24 people died, even included his contact information to personally persuade anyone with doubts.
“Think of the rescue/recovery teams who will rescue you if you are injured or recover your remains if you do not survive,” he wrote. “If you think the storm is overhyped and exaggerated, please err on the side of caution. You can call me up Friday (contact information is at the end of this briefing) and yell at me all you want.”
Yet a NOAA survey taken afterward found that 79 percent of residents along the coast where warnings were issued said they were caught off-guard by the size of the surge. And that weighed heavily on forecasters in the two years since, Rhome said.
“I’ve heard the word accelerate more times than I can count,” he said, referring to the pressure to produce the maps.
The best use of the maps, forecasters say, is for planning. They’ll allow people to not only determine in advance whether they might need to evacuate, but track an escape route in case they wait.
“The only thing it doesn’t tell you is the timing of when that water is going to get there, and sometimes escape routes get cut off,” said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the popular website Weather Underground. “So you have to be aware of timing issues.”
The modeling for the maps is so far conservative, with the chance of storm surge exceeding the amount indicated only one in 10, Rhome explained. Masters and others hope the center can improve accuracy.
“It’s a reasonable worst-case scenario. It’s not an explicit forecast because nobody can predict exactly how much surge there is going to be in a given spot,” Rhome said.
The center plans to test and tinker with the maps this year and next before finalizing them. The center also plans to start issuing surge watches and warnings in 2015 to accompany wind warnings.
“Warnings have always been a call to action. They are our most formal and direct way of communicating,” Rhome said. “The analogy here is if you’re standing in the road, I might tell you standing in the road is dangerous. That’s the graphic. The warning is telling you if you don’t get out of the road, you’re going to get hit by a car.”