The time of year that nobody wants to celebrate is finally upon us: hurricane season.
Wednesday marked the official start for the Atlantic season, even if Mother Nature got a jump start this year by throwing two pre-season storms into the mix. The day also serves as the time when forecasters and emergency managers make last-ditch pitches to the public to be prepared, hoping to fend off complacency.
The last time a major hurricane struck the United States, Tom Cruise had just proposed to Katie Holmes and the White Sox were about to celebrate their first World Series title in 46 years. Ancient history, right?
“We know we can’t take it for granted,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said during a Wednesday briefing at the National Hurricane Center. “ We have lived in hurricane alley for far too long to be complacent and we need to make sure we’re vigilant each and every year.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a near normal year for storms — 10 to 16 named storms, four to eight hurricanes and one to four major storms packing winds over 110 mph. That’s slightly worse than last year, when an intense El Niño in the Pacific generated strong winds that helped keep hurricanes from building in the Atlantic. Just 12 storms formed, with 11 becoming named storms, four hurricanes and two major hurricanes. This year forecasters are instead calling for a La Niña, which can weaken winds.
When and how intense that pattern develops has led to some uncertainty with the forecast, NOAA officials said last month. A long-term natural variation in Atlantic water temperatures could also be playing out, with the region entering a cooler phase.
This year, emergency managers are focusing their efforts on lethal storm surges, the leading cause of death in hurricanes. Over the past few years, they have improved models and on Wednesday made the new forecast tool operational for the first time, said National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb.
“This is a game-changing new way for us to communicate the deadliest hurricane hazard of all,” Knabb said.
But with so much time between storms, emergency managers fear that the warnings won’t be heeded or that the public will fail to prepare by coming up with emergency evacuation plans, updating insurance information, gathering supplies and strengthening homes. On Wednesday, they repeated the need to follow evacuation orders, particularly with the new level of accuracy, and pay attention to state and local emergency operations.
“The leading cause of death in hurricanes is not wind. But for some reason in Florida, we think wind is what we’ve got to get ready for,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, a former director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. “What kills people is water and the most preventable of those deaths occur from storm surge.”
Forecasters have also improved storm tracking over the last five years by 20 percent. Storm intensity forecasts have also improved, but it’s not yet clear how much of that is influenced by a lack of intense storms.
“That’s our biggest worry,” Knabb said. “We haven’t had as many storms lately, so we can’t tell if the trend in errors going down is real.”
For more information about how to prepare or receive warnings, visit www.ready.gov.