Hurricane season in southeast U.S. begins today, worrying storm watchers
Emergency measures chief concerned people won't prepare properly, given below-average forecast
For millions of Americans living in the hurricane zones on the Gulf and East coasts, recent decades have been quiet — maybe too quiet.
Cities like Tampa, Houston, Jacksonville and Daytona Beach historically get hit with major hurricanes every 20 to 40 years, according to meteorologists. But those same places have now gone at least 70 years — sometimes more than a century — without getting smacked by those monster storms, according to data analyses by an MIT hurricane professor and The Associated Press.
These are places where people may think they know what to expect from a major hurricane — with more than 177 km/h winds, such as Katrina or Andrew — but they really don't. They are cities where building construction has boomed but haven't been tested by nature at its strongest.
"We've been kind of lucky," said MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel, who along with the AP crunched numbers on how often hurricanes have hit metro regions and compared them to when the last time they were hit. "[The region] is ripe for disaster. … Everyone's forgotten what it's like."
"It's just the laws of statistics," said Emanuel. "Luck will run out. It's just a question of when."
This hurricane season, beginning Monday, doesn't look to be as busy as past ones. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts a 70 per cent chance of fewer than normal hurricanes, mostly because of an El Nino weather oscillation.
But even a quiet season can have one devastating storm hit. That's what happened when Andrew smashed parts of Miami in 1992; it was the second costliest hurricane on record, in a below average year for overall hurricane activity.
Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is preparing for the worst and worrying that other people aren't.
Inexperienced people "generally underestimate how bad it will be and made decisions about staying when they should be evacuating," Fugate said. "You have to accept the fact that every time a major storm threatens it's a new experience for 99 per cent of the people involved."
At Monday's briefing session for media, he and others appeared concerned that people in the region may be lulled into complacency and fail to prepare for hurricane season properly.
"Don't be misled by headlines that say it's going to be a snoozer," Fugate said, echoing previous speakers.
"A forecast is not an outcome.… You get ready every year for hurricane season .… Get ready now, know what you're going to do."
And then there are the people who went through smaller storms and think that wasn't too bad and misjudge the bigger storm. In that type of situation, that thinking can "get you killed," Fugate said. "People don't always understand the threat."
Hurricane evacuation researcher Jay Baker, a retired Florida State University professor, said his studies and surveys show that people will still evacuate properly even if they don't have recent storm experience.
But it's not just people; it's the officials who have to make the tough decisions and tell people what to do. Only one hurricane-prone state, Louisiana, has a governor who was in office when a major hurricane hit. The FEMA top management is different than in 2005, when the last majors hit.
My worry is that we'll have hundreds or even thousands dead the next major hurricane.- Christopher Landsea, National Hurricane Center
Fugate, who was Florida's emergency management chief during many state landfalls in 2004 and 2005, said "there are very, very few people who are working state government in Florida who were there in state government in 2004."
Experts are especially worried about the Tampa region. Emanuel calculates using past storm data and computer simulations that a major hurricane in general should hit Tampa every quarter century or so. The National Hurricane Center, calculating on past storms a bit differently, says a major hurricane should hit every 30 years or so. But it's been decades upon decades since the big one hit.
"It's a real big concern," said Christopher Landsea, science operations officer at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "My worry is that we'll have hundreds or even thousands dead the next major hurricane that hits the Tampa Bay area."
It may sound like areas like Tampa are "overdue," scientists like Landsea and Emanuel say that's not a good word because the odds of getting hit don't actually change because there were no storms the year before. They are the same year to year.
For Houston the last major hurricane hit was 1941, according to the hurricane center, although smaller storms, barely under the threshold for major, have hit more recently and major storms have skirted nearby.
"I would be seriously worried about Houston, just because it's a huge petrochemical center with very large potential for a blended natural-technological event," said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado.
For Ocean City, Maryland, and down the coast at Norfolk, Virginia, it's been more than 160 years since they've been hit by a major hurricane. And while geography and currents make landfalls there rarer than Florida, it can happen and probably will someday, experts said.
"I feel like I live on the San Andreas fault," longtime coastal Maryland resident RuthAnne Grant said inside a hardware store on Memorial Day. "A lot of older people move up here without a clue about what's going to happen."
It has been more than nine years since the U.S. was struck by a major hurricane — Superstorm Sandy did major damage but didn't qualify meteorologically as a major hurricane. That's a streak that is so unprecedented that NASA climate scientist Timothy Hall went looking to see if it could be explained by something that has happening with the weather or climate.