U.S. East Coast Faces Quick-Building Hurricanes as Season Starts
Unusually warm water, storm paths leave forecasters worried. Six-month Atlantic season starts Saturday, ends in November
As the Atlantic hurricane season gets under way, abnormally warm water close to the U.S. and Bahamas has forecasters worried the East Coast could fall victim to storms that quickly explode in strength.
While many weather experts believe conditions will be difficult for hurricanes trying to form in the central Atlantic, having warmer water closer to shore can mean a storm builds quickly as it approaches landfall. Last year two hurricanes struck the East Coast, including Michael, the first Category 5 to reach the contiguous U.S. in 16 years. Michael took only three days to develop from a tropical storm into a hurricane. It killed 16, caused $25 billion in damage and brought winds of 155 miles (249 kilometers) per hour to the Florida panhandle.
“When they happen in close we are taking that window down to about two days and it takes people a long time to react,’’ Jim Rouiller, chief meteorologist at the Energy Weather Group in Philadelphia. “So they could become more problematic because of the lack of lead time.’’
Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms are some of the most closely watched weather systems in the world because, aside from the human calamity, they can disrupt oil, natural gas and agriculture markets, as well as threatening expensive coastal real estate. The season starts June 1 and ends Nov. 30.
Along the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coasts, $1.8 trillion of real estate and 7.3 million homes are at risk, according to CoreLogic, a property risk firm based in Irvine, California. In addition, the Gulf Coast accounts for roughly 45% of U.S. refining capacity, and about 17% of the nation’s crude comes out of the Gulf of Mexico. Florida is the world’s second largest orange-juice producer.
In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted nine to 15 storms would be named in 2019, with 4 to 8 becoming hurricanes and 2 to 4 growing into major systems with winds of 111 miles per hour or more. A storm gets a name when its winds reach 39 mph and becomes a hurricane when they get to 74 mph.
A weak El Nino in the Pacific could create storm-ripping wind shear across the heart of the Atlantic when the peak of the season starts in August and September, and usually that is a good sign, said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, an IBM company, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But this year there are other weather patterns also at play that concern Masters. First, conditions in 2019 are similar to what happened in 2004 when an above-average 15 storms came out of the Atlantic, Masters said. Second, a pattern called the North Atlantic Oscillation is in its negative phase, and that often causes storms to hook to the north.
“We shouldn’t hang our hat on the idea that this will be a below-average season,’’ Masters said. “The Southeast U.S. coast is the area that needs to be most vigilant for above average activity this year.’’
This region has been hit hard in recent years. In 2015, massive flooding struck North Carolina and South Carolina. Another deluge swept the area in 2016. And finally last year, Hurricane Florence rode over both states, bringing record rain.
Flooding along the Mississippi and other rivers leaves the central U.S. especially vulnerable to any early season storms that could strike and move inland.
Masters said he doesn’t see any serious threats emerging in the next few weeks, though. The Atlantic has already produced one short-lived storm, Andrea, which only lasted a day before it dissipated. There could be a few other weak systems popping up in coming weeks, but as with prior years the active part of the season likely won’t arrive until August