The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season is officially over. The season ended with 13 named storms, two of which became hurricanes. There were no category two or three hurricanes this year – something that is extremely rare to have happen. While there will be plenty of speculation as to what “went wrong”, the bottom line is that, for millions of coastal dwellers, especially in the United States, the 2013 hurricane season was about as tame as they get. According to the official report from the National Hurricane Center, tropical storm Andrea caused around $25 million in damage and resulted in one death from rough surf in South Carolina. Otherwise, the season was a non-event.
Before we go and celebrate too much, let’s consider the longer term implications of what’s been going on the last several years.
Florida has not had a single hurricane landfall since Wilma in 2005. A child who was in the 6th grade during Wilma would now be a sophomore in college. Every child who was born in Florida since Wilma (and still lives there) has never experienced a hurricane of any magnitude. That is simply astounding and honestly, a huge problem. We’re talking millions of people who have zero hurricane experience. And this is just Florida.
For the United States as a whole, the time between major hurricane landfalls, hurricanes that are of category three or higher, is now more than eight years. While there is a case to be made that Ike in 2008 was a “major event” and Sandy as well last year, those hurricanes were not intense, well developed, category three or higher. Think about that for a moment. As bad as Sandy was, affecting as much coastline as it did, it was only a category one as it approached New Jersey. Obviously, Sandy was an extraordinary event, especially considering the amount of coastline it impacted. However, it is not without precedent to have large, fully tropical, intense hurricanes making landfall in the Northeast. They are not common but they do happen. Sandy was not anything close to a worse case scenario and yet it is the second costliest hurricane disaster in U.S. history.
My point is that yes, it is great to have a free pass once in a while. What worries me is the extended amount of time that the U.S. is going without dealing with a significant hurricane landfall. Practice makes perfect, or so they say, but with no hurricanes of any magnitude to practice with, how can we expect to be fully prepared?
I can see it now. Budgets will be cut for hurricane awareness, mitigation and preparation. The rationale will be “we haven’t had a hurricane so why bother?” The good ole out of sight, out of mind principle. It will happen and it will weaken the response effort, I can assure you. That is what I am worried about. The longer we go without a hurricane, especially a major hurricane, the worse it will likely be when it does happen. Why do I think this is the likely outcome? Let’s look at one event: Katrina.
Katrina whacked Florida first and then the central Gulf Coast. It was the sixth major hurricane to strike the United States in less than two years. Yes, that’s right, the SIXTH! In 2004 we had: Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Then, in 2005, Dennis struck the Florida panhandle as a category three in July. Katrina was a little more than a month later. We had five previous major hurricanes to “practice” with and still got it totally wrong with Katrina. One would have thought that by the time Katrina was taking aim on New Orleans and the Mississippi coast that it would be a no-brainer and every possible measure would have been taken to mitigate loss of life and damage to property. History tells the rest of that story quite well.
Logic would then dictate that if we cannot get it right after five back-to-back events, then how on earth will we have a chance to get it right when nothing at all (no major hurricanes) has happened since before the iPad was invented?
I worry. I really do. I have people ask me all the time about where all the hurricanes have gone. I don’t have solid answers. I tell them to at least keep a watch out and not let their guard down. It’s hard to keep banging a drum when no one has a reason to even listen. One does not want to become annoying with the drum-banging either so it’s a fine line that has to be straddled. We know it is only a matter of time until the hurricanes return. When they do, will we as a nation be ready or will we have forgotten the images of people on roof tops, people dead in the streets, people calling for heads to roll high up the political chain of command?
It is thus critically important, more now than anytime since 2005, to keep hurricanes on the front burner. Let’s not cut out education and awareness programs. Keep the funding for research and forecasting improvements. Hurricanes are not extinct. We’ve had some incredible luck these past eight years. We need only to look at what took place in the Philippines to give us a glimpse of how bad it can get. Consider too that they have the most tropical cyclone experience of any land mass on the planet.
The season may be over but hurricanes have not gone extinct. Now is not the time to turn our backs on the inevitable fact that one day, perhaps in 2014, perhaps longer, another powerful storm will go down in history – I just hope it’s for all the right reasons. We know all the wrong ones, let’s see if we remember.
I’ll have plenty of off-season info on a regular basis. This includes winter storm coverage for East Coast events and severe weather outbreaks. The blog will be updated from time to time and of course, this includes our app for iPhone and Android devices. Thanks for relying on us for hurricane news and info again this year. We’re working on some new and innovative technology for our field program and can’t wait to unveil it next spring. When the hurricanes do come back, we’ll be more capable and ready than ever before. Have a wonderful Christmas and be safe! We want you back in 2014!
M. Sudduth 8:55 am ET December 2