Hurricane Season Will Be Above Average, NOAA Warns

May 21, 2020
Originally published on May 22, 2020 10:15 am

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts 2020 will be an above-average hurricane season, with six to 10 hurricanes. NOAA expects three to six to be Category 3 or higher, with sustained wind speeds above 110 miles per hour.

This hurricane season is coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. and continues to complicate basic travel and commerce across the country. Residents and emergency managers in hurricane-prone areas are grappling with concerns that evacuations, especially to public shelters, might increase coronavirus infections.

If the forecast proves correct, it will be the fifth year in a row with an above-average number of hurricanes — the most consecutive years of above-average hurricane activity ever recorded.

"Now is the time to make sure you're getting prepared for this season," says Gerry Bell, NOAA'S lead hurricane forecaster.

Bell warns residents of hurricane-prone areas not to be overly focused on hurricane category, which is based only on wind speed. "Don't get locked into just the ultimate hurricane strength," he says.

Climate change is driving more extreme rain and causing sea levels to rise, which means storms of all sizes are more damaging than they used to be. "Higher sea levels mean more storm inundation as a storm is approaching," says Bell. "The problem with that is our coastlines have built up tremendously over the last decades, so there [are] potentially millions more people in harm's way every time a hurricane threatens [to make landfall]."

The conditions in the part of the Atlantic Ocean where hurricanes generally form fluctuate on a multi-decade timeline, with some periods more conducive to hurricane formation than others. The Atlantic has been relatively friendly to hurricanes since 1995, and recent above-average activity is largely due to that trend, which is separate from man-made climate change.

However, at the global level, climate change caused by humans is driving more intense hurricanes on average, according to a NOAA study published this week. And recent storms such as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria have dumped more rain than they would have without climate change, scientists say.

On Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency published its 2020 pandemic guide for hurricane preparedness, which urges state and local governments to rethink when they give evacuation orders ahead of hurricanes, and where they direct residents to go. FEMA warns that housing large groups of people in shelters could lead to increased transmission of the coronavirus.

On Thursday, FEMA Acting Deputy Administrator for Resilience Carlos Castillo said that the agency wants people to change what they bring with them if they evacuate from a hurricane.

"Be prepared to take cleaning items with you like soap, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes or general household cleaning supplies to disinfect surfaces you may touch regularly," he says.

FEMA also recommends that people prioritize staying with family or friends outside evacuation zones rather than going to shelters, in order to limit coronavirus spread. Earlier this month the Red Cross announced it was working on arrangements with hotels in disaster-prone areas, so that people who are displaced can stay out of group shelters as much as possible.

Correction: 5/21/20

The radio version of this report incorrectly stated that hurricane season ends on November 1. Hurricane season runs through November 30.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hurricane season is coming, and Federal forecasters are predicting that there will be between six and 10 hurricanes in the Atlantic this year. That's above average. Gerry Bell is the lead hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

GERRY BELL: The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is expected to be a busy one.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: If the forecast turns out to be correct, this will be the fifth year in a row with above-average hurricane activity in the Atlantic. That's the most consecutive years ever recorded, Bell says.

BELL: We're expecting yet another above-normal season, and now's the time to make sure that you're getting prepared.

HERSHER: The Federal Emergency Management Agency is asking state and local governments to consider issuing evacuation orders earlier than they would have in the past in order to give people more time to safely leave their homes while maintaining as much social distance as possible. Carlos Castillo of FEMA says Americans in hurricane-prone areas should also pack different supplies than they would have.

CARLOS CASTILLO: Be prepared to take cleaning items with you, like soap, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes or general household cleaning supplies to disinfect surfaces you may touch regularly.

HERSHER: FEMA is also urging people to stay with family or friends or in hotels rather than in shelters, if they can. Forecaster Gerry Bell says the main reason for the large number of storms in the forecast is a phenomenon called the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation. Basically, the wind and temperatures in the Atlantic have been really good for making strong hurricanes since about 1995. That will probably change in the next few years as normal climate fluctuations happen.

That's separate from manmade climate change, but climate change is making the storms that do form more damaging. For one thing, Bell says, sea levels are rising.

BELL: Higher sea levels mean more storm inundation as a hurricane's approaching.

HERSHER: And warmer air and water mean that hurricanes are more likely to drop catastrophic amounts of rain when they make landfall - think Hurricane Harvey in 2017 or Hurricane Florence in 2018. And, he says, rain and storm surge affect more people than they used to.

BELL: Our coastlines have built up tremendously over the last several decades so that there's potentially many more millions of people in harm's way every time a hurricane threatens.

HERSHER: Together, normal climate variability, plus the effects of human-caused climate change, plus the pandemic, add up to a potentially deadly summer and fall. Hurricane season officially begins on June 1 and runs until November 1.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

[CORRECTION: The radio version of this report incorrectly stated that hurricane season ends on November 1. Hurricane season runs through November 30.]

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