Weather forecasters are predicting that the third named storm of this year’s nascent hurricane season will form later this week over the Gulf of Mexico, bringing the potential of flooding rains to the U.S. coastline.
There is a 70 percent chance that the low pressure area and thunderstorms currently located in the Bay of Campeche in southern Mexico will strengthen into a tropical cyclone over the next 48 hours, the National Hurricane Center said on its website. If so, the storm will be named Tropical Storm Claudette.
Hurricane season kicked off on June 1 and the National Hurricane Center has already tracked three storms, a rarity for this time of year and a possible indication of what is to come. Forecasters have warned that they expect an “above-average” Atlantic hurricane season.
“We are expecting a range of between about 13 to 20 named storms, systems that at least get to tropical storm strength,” Michael Brennan, branch chief of the Hurricane Specialist Unit at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, told Yahoo News.
“Expecting six to 10 of those to be hurricanes and at least three to five of those to become major hurricanes,” he added.
Emergency professionals were kept especially busy in 2020. With the nation largely focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. experienced the worst hurricane season since 2005, with 14 hurricanes that killed more than 400 people and resulted in damages of over $51 billion.
Like many organizations around the country, Brennan said, thanks to the pandemic the NHC continues to work in a hybrid capacity. But the agency has made sure to have personnel spread out so as to minimize the amount of travel needed in an emergency.
“Coming on the heels of a year like 2020, where just about every inch of the U.S. coastline from Texas to Maine, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, was affected in some way, shape or form by at least one tropical storm or hurricane last year, folks should be pretty fresh off of that, realizing that there is a lot of vulnerability,” he said. “This is the time of year, early in the season, where we are now, to analyze your risk.”
When it comes to deciding which communities need to evacuate due to a given storm, the National Hurricane Center will rely on beefed-up technological capacity to help assess risk.
“Continually improving satellites, for example, and trying to do more with resonance aircraft that can fly directly into the storm and directly measure winds and structure and pressure and other data,” Brennan said.
Those upgrades, he said, could save millions of dollars in evacuation efforts and headaches for those whose areas won’t be seriously affected by a storm.
While studies have shown that hurricanes are becoming more powerful thanks to climate change, forecasting where those storms will hit has continued to improve.
“Now, the National Hurricane Center with their new products have been able to pinpoint that down and it’s a fraction,” Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, told Yahoo News.
Guthrie took the helm of FDEM in May. As the number of new cases of COVID-19 is falling nationwide, he will need to make sure that his state is prepared for another deadly threat.
“We have to be flexible, we have to be adaptable, we have to be able to manage two or three different disasters at a single time,” Guthrie said. “Certainly COVID and last year’s pandemic, hurricane season brought that to the forefront.”
Before a hurricane hits, Guthrie said, residents can do themselves a huge favor by checking their insurance policies. Other than protecting one’s personal safety, he said, the first line of defense is making sure a home is covered for possible damages.
“They say a picture is worth one thousand words, but in some cases a picture could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Hurricane Laura, for example, was the costliest weather event in the U.S. in 2020, resulting in $19 billion in damages and the deaths of 42 people. A Category 4 storm that made landfall near Cameron, La., Laura resulted in 130,000 filed claims for residential property loss.
Guthrie advised people to take pictures of their property before and after a storm to illustrate the extent of damages so as to help document an insurance claim.
“No matter where you are in the United States, if you qualify for every single program FEMA has to offer, you’re going to get a check from them for about $35,000 to $36,000,” Guthrie said. “The average payout to a Floridian in the last 10 years or so is $4,000. I don’t care if you’re in Florida or California, Colorado or New York. You’re not going to rebuild a home for $36,000 … much less $4,000.”
An emergency response volunteer for the Red Cross, Dan Halyburton and his wife both contracted COVID-19 last year. But Halyburton recovered in time to help respond to Hurricane Laura, which ravaged parts of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.
“They called when Hurricane Laura hit and they said, ‘So what do you think?’ And I said, ‘Well, I gotta go. Somebody’s gotta go; it isn’t going to fix itself.’”
Ironically, the pandemic offered a silver lining when it came to helping hurricane victims.
“The interesting thing that was happening during the height of the pandemic is that nobody was traveling,” Halyburton said. “Hotels were mostly empty. So we were able to provide shelter hotel stays for a lot of folks, and that certainly provided a much greater degree of safety.”
Red Cross volunteers who turned out to help victims of Hurricane Laura experienced a low incidence of COVID-19 infection, Halyburton said. The bigger danger for survivors of the storm, he said, came from the need to generate electricity.
“A majority of deaths during Laura were attributed to improper use of generators,” Halyburton said. “With more than 600,000 homes out of power across the three states, many of them were in use.”
As the NHC continues to monitor more brewing storms, including a disturbance off the coast of Africa, Brennan is encouraging Americans to pay attention this hurricane season as well.
“It’s all about planning ahead of time, knowing what your risk is and having that plan in place, so that when a storm comes, you can just put the plan into action,” he said.