‘Ingredients are there’ for busy storm season

Pixabay/Pexels

News Service of Florida

With insurers, utilities and emergency-management officials bracing for the coming months, experts continue to predict a highly active hurricane season for Florida and other areas of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Echoing earlier predictions about the season that will start June 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday pointed to warm ocean waters and forecast up to 25 named storms, with up to 13 reaching hurricane strength and four to seven packing Category 3 or stronger winds.

Mark Wool, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Tallahassee office, said there is high confidence in the latest forecast, which doesn’t predict paths of storms or potential landfalls.

“All of the ingredients are there. We still have those near-record warm waters out in the Atlantic tropical-development areas that were there last year, and we no longer have (the climate pattern known as) El Nino,” Wool said. “We actually like to have an El Nino during hurricane season, because it increases wind shear over the development areas.”

Officials also have growing concern that rapid intensification of storms is becoming more frequent, resulting in less time for preparations and evacuations.

“While climate change as science doesn’t necessarily indicate we’re going to be getting more tropical cyclones on average, we are predicting that there will be more of the major hurricanes and more of a category 4s and 5s,” Wool added. “And that this rapid intensification, which has been on the increase, will happen more frequently.”

A 2024 disaster preparedness sales tax holiday will be held June 1-14 for certain supplies, including on $50 or less of portable self-powered radios and gas or diesel fuel tanks, $60 or less on nonelectric food storage coolers, and $70 or less on smoke detectors. 

The six-month season officially begins June 1, but a disturbance Thursday off the eastern tip of Cuba had a low chance to grow into the year’s first named system.

Acknowledging the possibility of “a very, very intense hurricane season,” state Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said last month that “one thing that we do better than anything else is respond to hurricanes.”

Guthrie said the division is prepared for up to five storms hitting the state and expects to rely “more heavily” than in past years on contractors providing pre- and post-storm materials.

“For example, we used to have five logistics vendors, we now have 12 logistics vendors,” Guthrie said. “That’s all in preparation for this season that’s coming up.”

Florida State University Climatologist David Zierden said the forecasts of a busy season haven’t been a surprise because of the ocean temperatures.

“The latest analysis I saw is that sea surface temperatures in the main development region are as warm as they normally are in mid-August right now,” Zierden told reporters on May 16. “That’s what we’re looking at. The sea surface temperatures in that region were record warm last year. And we’re even above that going into this hurricane season.”

The NOAA forecast Thursday was similar to a Colorado State University Department of Atmospheric Science forecast of 23 named storms and 11 hurricanes.

Experts at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts & Sciences, meanwhile, forecast an eye-opening 33 named storms.

The private meteorology company AccuWeather warned Wednesday about rapidly intensifying storms, which gain wind intensity of at least 35 mph in 24 hours or less.

“Over the last couple of years, there have been many examples where this has been exceeded. We’ve seen 40 mph, 50 mph, even 60 mph increases in a 24-hour period,” AccuWeather Lead Hurricane Forecaster Alex DaSilva said in a prepared statement.

Among the examples was 2022’s Hurricane Ian, which went from a 120-mph Category 3 hurricane to a 160-mph Category 5 system in the 24 hours before it struck Southwest Florida as a devastating Category 4 storm.

The 2023 season was the fourth most-active on record with 20 named storms, including seven that reached hurricane strength and three major storms. In late August, Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Taylor County as a Category 3 storm before tearing through parts of rural North Florida.

From 1991 to 2020 the Atlantic averaged 14.4 storms a year, with an average of 7.2 reaching hurricane strength.

Armando Pimentel, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light, told members of the state Public Service Commission on Tuesday that the utility has to prepare for storms that could quickly intensify because “we no longer feel comfortable that a Category 1 is going to stay Category 1.”

“That wasn’t the case 20 years ago,” Pimentel said. “And maybe it’s a bunch of flukes that have happened over the last couple of years. But we need to be well prepared.”

Pimentel said maximum sustained winds of Hurricane Idalia increased by 55 mph in 24 hours before landfall.

“That’s taking a Category 1 storm to Category 3, almost to a Category 4. That’s significant,” Pimentel said. “That what I’m talking about. The waters are warm again this year. We’re all cognizant of that as we’re going to prepare for this year.”

Patricia Born, a professor of risk management and insurance at Florida State University, told reporters May 16 that changes have helped the property-insurance market, such as legislation that bolstered insurers and backing from reinsurers. Entering hurricane season, Born said Floridians can get coverage from private insurers or through the state’s Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

“So, it’s a good thing to know, from a social point of view, that we don’t have a huge gap with people being uninsured going into the season,” Born said.

But Born cautioned that the state continues to face storms that affect homeowners’ premiums. The problem, Born added, is getting through a period before legislation fully takes hold.

“I’m pretty optimistic that one storm is not going to kill us. A couple of storms may be a little bit more of an issue,” Born said. “If this is a season where we have two or three hurricanes, we’re going to be facing some concerns.”

Collin Breaux contributed to this story.