Hurricane experts are predicting a “near-normal” 2019 Atlantic hurricane season with up to 15 named storms.
But don’t let “near-normal” lull you into a sense of complacency. One word for Floridians: Michael.
On Thursday, forecasters with the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) unveiled their annual assessment of the season that begins June 1 and runs through Nov. 30:
▪ There could be nine to 15 named storms with winds of at least 39 mph.
▪ Of these, four to eight could turn into hurricanes of 74 mph or greater.
▪ And two to four of these storms could strengthen into major Category 3, 4 or 5 storms — like Hurricane Michael last October, which hit Florida’s Panhandle and devastated the region’s Mexico Beach.
“This looks like a near-normal season but nine to 15 named storms is a lot,” cautioned Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane season forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “Two to four major hurricanes is a lot. So even though we are expecting a near-normal season, regardless, that’s a lot of activity.”
There was already a tease to the coming season from the formation of the Subtropical Storm Andrea about 300 miles southwest of Bermuda in the Atlantic on May 20 — the first named storm before the season even started. Andrea fizzled.
Competing climate factors
According to Neil Jacobs, NOAA’s acting administrator, the 2019 season’s outlook reflects competing climate factors.
El Niño is weakening, which isn’t great news given that a strong El Niño can increase wind shear and help suppress hurricane activity in the Atlantic, Jacobs said. But, it’s still out there and there are other things NOAA considered when making its forecast.
“The ongoing El Niño is expected to persist and suppress the intensity of the hurricane season. Countering El Niño is the expected combination of warmer-than-average sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and an enhanced west African monsoon — both of which favor increased hurricane activity,” Jacobs said in an announcement from a hangar at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The forecast likelihood is given with a 70% certainty, meaning NOAA expects to be accurate in seven out of 10 seasons, Bell said.
Breaking it down, the center’s outlook forecasts a 40% chance of a near-normal season, a 30% chance of an above-normal season and a 30% chance of a below-normal season.
“The primary goal is to encourage the public to take steps to prepare before June 1,” Jacobs said of Thursday’s forecast release. “Prepare, review your emergency evacuation plan, gather supplies now before your area impacts.”
“Preparing ahead of a disaster is the responsibility of all levels of government, the private sector, and the public,” added Daniel Kaniewski, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s deputy administrator for resilience.
“It only takes one event to devastate a community so now is the time to prepare,” he said, citing certain “musts,” like having cash on hand, since ATMs and credit card readers go down when there is no power after a storm. Also, make sure you have adequate homeowners and separate flood insurance.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center will update the 2019 Atlantic seasonal outlook in August just before the traditional peak of the season, which is August, September and October. June and July storms tend to be less severe, Jacobs said.
NOAA’s outlook is for overall seasonal activity and it does not take any guesses of where, or if, storms might make landfall.
South Florida wet season
In a prediction focused exclusively on South Florida, regional forecasters said the wet season, which started this month, is shaping up to be hot, with above-average temperatures that will be more noticeable early in the morning and overnight.
Rainfall predictions show just a slight chance of higher-than-normal precipitation and the likelihood of a wetter first half of the season.
“The start of the wet season, in May and June, is typically the stormiest period, when we can see heavy thunderstorms, hail and even tornadoes,’’ said Robert Molleda, National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist, in a briefing in Miami on Wednesday.
In July, South Florida will likely enter a drier pattern, he added. And El Niño is around for this wet season.
The weather pattern is looking weaker than in previous years, meaning the waters off the Pacific coast are not much warmer than usual. A weaker El Niño is expected to continue through August and lose strength between September and November.
In general, strong El Niño years are associated with an increase in tropical storms in the eastern Pacific, and reduced activity in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
So in theory, this year’s weak El Niño pattern wouldn’t provide much protection against hurricanes in South Florida.
“But we have to remember that we were hit by hurricanes in strong El Niño years, in La Niña years and in neutral years, so we can’t really focus on this correlation with El Niño,’’ Molleda added.
Water managers said flood control systems in the 16 counties stretching from south of Orlando to the Florida Keys are ready to handle the wet season.
“Lake Okeechobee is just low enough that we can accommodate more rain without the need of discharges at this point,’’ said Akin Owosina, hydrology bureau chief at the South Florida Water Management District.