Hurricane Season's Here — Who's Ready?

The votes are all in from long-range hurricane season forecasters, and if they're anything close to right, this year's Atlantic storm season is shaping up to be a doozy. On June 4, British forecasting firm Tropical Storm Risk (TSR) was the last to weigh in, with a projection calling for 17.7 named storms, 9.5 hurricanes, and 4.4 intense hurricanes in the Atlantic basin this year. That's almost identical to earlier predictions from NOAA (the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) -- 18.5 named storms, 11 hurricanes, and 5 major hurricanes -- and from researchers at Colorado State University(2.4MB PDF) -- 18 named storms, 10 hurricanes, and 5 intense hurricanes. Says meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters on WunderBlog, his Weather Underground blog, "The June forecast numbers from all three groups were the highest they've ever gone for in their history of issuing Atlantic hurricane season forecasts." Early long-range forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, of course. But this year, there's one strong indicator that seems compelling: very high surface sea temperatures in May in the ocean areas where hurricanes typically form. Writes Jeff Masters, "Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) in the Atlantic's Main Development Region for hurricanes had their warmest May on record, according to an analysis of historical SST data from the UK Hadley Center. SST data goes back to 1850, though there is much missing data before 1910 and during WWI and WWII. SSTs in the Main Development Region (10°N to 20°N and 20°W to 80°W) were a remarkable 1.51°C above average during May. This is the fourth straight record warm month, and the warmest anomaly measured for any month." This week, Masters had his eye on a disturbance off the African coast that he thought might turn into the year's first tropical storm (" First tropical depression of the season may form from 92L"). A big storm forming this early would be a rarity, Masters says: 1979's Tropical Storm Ana was the only named storm on record to appear in June in the area he's watching, between Africa and the Lesser Antilles islands. By Tuesday, however, changing conditions had pulled the plug on Invest 92L, with Masters reporting that the storm "has fizzled, due to dry air... The prospects for 92L developing into a tropical depression appear dim. With wind shear expected to rise from its current levels of 10 - 15 knots to 20 - 25 knots on Wednesday, the combination of shear and dry air should be able to pretty much destroy 92L on Wednesday" (“ Dry air disrupting 92L” scroll down to find this story). So who's ready for a big hurricane season? In the Wilmington, North Carolina vicinity, it has been 14 years since the last big test — time enough for new houses and new residents to be facing an unfamiliar risk for the first time, the Wilmington Star-News reports (" New homes, newcomers to Cape Fear region untested by big storms," by Gareth McGrath). Says the paper, "Fourteen years after Fran and the $5 billion worth of damage it caused, Southeastern North Carolina is again smack in the middle of a long quiet spell. And like the time before Fran, the growth spurt of last decade has seen more people and structures – many of which haven’t really been storm-tested – crowding the coast." North Carolina emergency responders are better trained and better equipped now than they used to be, the Star-News reports; and upgrades to building codes mean that new buildings are also tougher than in years past. The big unknown, the paper says, is how locals will react. Surveys indicate that residents overestimate the risk of a storm, but underestimate the damage a big storm could do. Having experienced lesser storms or near-misses by big storms, people tend to wrongly imagine that they've already seen the worst punches nature can throw. “They think they’d experienced something that they actually hadn’t experienced,” University of North Carolina economist Chris Dumas told the Star-News. In Florida, the state insurance industry has rebuilt its finances since the losses of previous big storm years, despite the down economy, according to a report from the Florida News Service. The Lakeland Ledger has the story (" Catastrophe Fund In Good Standing," by Michael Peltier): "As of May 18, the state had more than $6 billion in cash reserves for 2010. Coupled with $3.5 billion in preseason notes already purchased and $7.1 billion in required private insurer contributions, the fund could weather a $17 billion storm without having to seek additional bonds." But there's less encouraging news about Florida's policy of using insurance incentives to encourage homeowners to apply storm-resistant construction retrofits, the New York Times reported in February (" Fla. Stumbles in Effort to Harden Homes Against Hurricanes," by Evan Lehmann). Many homeowners are receiving discounts based on work that didn't actually get done, according to an industry analysis reported in the Times: "In other words, there are more discounts being given out than there are homes being protected. 'In effect, everyone's getting a discount,' said Gary Landry, vice president of the Florida Insurance Council, an industry group." And in New Orleans, the potentially big storm season is coming as levee improvements to protect the low-lying city remain incomplete, the Times-Picayune reports (" Hurricane season begins Tuesday with $5.8 billion of work still in progress," by Sheila Grissett). The city's federally-run Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (no longer called by its optimistic pre-Katrina name, "Hurricane Protection System") is still in the middle of a $14-billion upgrade. "The overall rebuilding is far from complete," reports the Times-Picayune. "And until it is, the flood control system will still have gaps that would have to be plugged with giant sand bags and baskets, sheet piling or other materials able to hold back water." Tim Doody, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East overseeing levee operations in East Jefferson, St. Bernard Parish and the east bank of New Orleans, told the Times-Picayune, "We won't have 100-year protection until all the projects are finished next year or whenever the corps actually completes the work. And even then, 100-year protection isn't nearly enough, so it will remain critical that residents go when the evacuation call is given."