THE 1999 HURRICANE SEASON

A MILLENNIUM GROUP SPECIAL REPORT

By Hal Blondell

June 22, 1999

THE HEADLINES:

"Deadly Hurricane Season Predicted"

"U.S. Forecasters Foresee Another Mean Storm Season"

"Forecaster Says 'Mitch'-Like Deaths Possible In U.S."


One thing is for certain: No one can say the government didn't warn the population of an impending bad tropical cyclone season. In the 25 years that I have been studying Climatology and Meteorology I have never seen such overt concern expressed by government officials.

The Clues:

There are a number of factors that are tracked and then analyzed for possible contribution or detraction from the statistical "normals" for the storm season. All of these factors, ranging from average surface pressures in the Atlantic Basin to ocean temperatures, indicate the likelihood of a very active season. The correlation between La Nina events and the season are not well understood, but there is generally a good pattern of cooler than normal Pacific temps matching with an active Atlantic season. This year there are extensive areas of cooler-than-normal water in the Pacific including an area along the entire Western Coast of the USA.

The region where many of the larger disturbances begin their life cycle is in the tropical Atlantic along the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone) between South America and Africa. This zone has become very active for this early in the season (in fact it looks more like August on satellite imagery) with the NOAA Hurricane Center recently commenting on the unusual size and strength of the tropical waves already moving along the boundary. It is especially these large rotating disturbances - originating in this region - that can grow and become the larger and stronger Atlantic storms.

It's The Track That Really Matters:

One of the items that concerns me the most is the recent long term weather pattern across North America. If the general tendency for the jet stream to dip (trough) in the West and rise (ridge) in the East continues into the Summer, we can expect a much higher potential for landfalling storms. This ridging in the East will cause the "Bermuda High" to strengthen and elongate westward toward the USA's East Coast. It is this configuration that steers tropical storm systems on a West to Northwest course, and prevents them from sharply re-curving into the open Atlantic. In a normal year, this type of pattern could cause high damage rates due to several storms making landfall along the coast. If you add into this probable equation the additional likelihood of a higher number of strong intensity storms forming this season you can then begin to see the cause for great concern.

Was The Recent Tropical Storm Arlene A Foreshadow?

Yes in many ways it may have been. In over 113 years of record keeping, there has never been a recorded tropical storm form in that region of the Atlantic this early in the season. Generally, the Atlantic Ocean is not yet warm enough that far North and East to allow for the formation or sustaining of a tropical system. You would also usually expect the system to have been caught up in the still brisk flow of fronts and troughs along the east coast, and to have been turned sharply Northeast and moved rapidly out to sea. Because of upper level ridging in the region - also responsible for the recent heat wave in the northeast - the storm meandered and edged Westward closer to Bermuda. It still re-curved Northeastward, but it's hesitancy in doing so illustrates my point about the steering currents and the possible long term effects of this pattern.

Does Increased Energy from the Sun = Super Storms?

During this Summer, we can expect the Solar activity to continue it's increase toward next Spring's forecasted Solar Maximum. The relationship between the energetic events I report to you on the SMQ updates, and weather systems remains unclear, but in my opinion a relationship certainly exists. With the increased atmospheric electrical energy that will be frequently pulsing into our environment this Summer, there is a chance - if other atmospheric patterns are favorable - that we may see some of the strongest hurricanes ever observed in the Atlantic basin... systems in the extreme range of Gilbert, Camille, Andrew, and Mitch.

Be Prepared:

If you live in or near a hurricane prone region, be prepared. Familiarize yourself with local storm shelters, evacuation procedures, maps of storm surge safety zones. Plan now what you would do in the event of everything from a strong tropical storm to a Category Five hurricane. This season may start in earnest early, so don't wait until August to do it. Even people who live hundreds of miles inland can be severely effected by a strong hurricane striking the coast. Flash flooding, wind damage, and tornadoes occur well away from the eye of the storm. When Hurricane Hugo hit the South Carolina coast, no one in Charlotte was prepared for the hurricane force winds and flooding rains that hit the city. The thing to remember is that a powerful storm, making a head-on landfall, can carry much of its damaging energy far inland.

Hal Blondell


THE PRESS

A SAMPLE:

Deadly Hurricane Season Predicted

April 2, 1999; 4:25 a.m. EST

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Tropical storms and hurricanes killed thousands last year, and a top forecaster says the 1999 Atlantic hurricane season could be just as deadly.

"The odds strongly favor us entering a new era for storms," William Gray, a Colorado State University weather forecaster, said Thursday at the National Hurricane Conference.

Gray predicted the hurricane season this year could match the 14 tropical storms and 10 hurricanes that killed at least 10,000 people last year, mostly by Hurricane Mitch in Honduras.

Cyclical changes making Atlantic waters warmer and saltier are behind the upswing in storm activity, Gray said. The same conditions have not been seen since the late 1960s.

The 1999 season will have 14 named storms and nine hurricanes, four of them major, Gray predicted. "That's a very active season," he said.

Florida could experience severe damage sometime in the near future because of the upswing in the number of storms and because more people are living in storm-prone areas.

"We're going to be seeing a $50 billion-, $70 billion-, $100 billion-damage storm," Gray said. "Florida is a sitting duck."

Over the last 30 years, an average of about 10 tropical storms have occurred annually, and five or six have reached hurricane strength.

The hurricane season begins June 1 and lasts through Nov. 30.

Gov. Jeb Bush said at the conference that he would work to improve hurricane evacuation routes and maintain tougher building codes.

"We have a responsibility to make sure people can escape when they are asked to do so," he said.


May 27 3:37 PM ET

U.S. Forecasters Foresee Another Mean Storm Season

MIAMI (Reuters) - With memories of killer hurricanes Mitch and Georges still fresh, another brutal storm season could be on tap for the Caribbean and southeast U.S. coasts this year, forecasters said Thursday.

The 1999 season, which officially starts on June 1, is likely to see more than the usual 10 tropical storms and five to six hurricanes, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in its Atlantic storm forecast.

"The outlook says there are increased chances for greater-than-average hurricane activity and three or more intense storms," National Hurricane Center director Jerry Jarrell said at a news conference.

Officials also called for tougher construction standards so buildings could withstand vicious weather over the six-month season.

The worst horror in a year that saw 14 tropical storms and 10 hurricanes was Hurricane Mitch, which killed 11,000 people last October as it dumped six feet of rain in Honduras and Nicaragua, devastating the Central American economies.

Hurricane Georges killed more than 500 people on its march through the Dominican Republic and Haiti in September.

A normal Atlantic hurricane season includes nine to 10 tropical storms, of which five to six are hurricanes and two are "intense" hurricanes with maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph.

Colorado State University Prof. William Gray, a widely followed hurricane forecaster, also had bad news for coastal residents. Gray said Thursday he expected 14 tropical storms this season, of which 10 will reach hurricane strength and three will become intense hurricanes.

Tropical storms become hurricanes when their top sustained winds reach 74 mph.

"The odds favor an active year because the climate signals that we've seen out there are similar to the precursor climate signals of rather active years" in the past, Gray said.

Citing the forecast, federal emergency officials used the news conference to announce "Project Impact," a program to encourage U.S. homeowners and businesses to make their buildings stronger, even if it costs more to do so.

Officials in Florida recently began debating a plan to weaken a tough building code put into place after 1992's Andrew destroyed tens of thousands of houses, some built so shoddily their cement dissolved in water and their roofs lifted off.

"It's kind of like you can pay me now, or pay me later," James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said. "We (FEMA) don't enforce codes. that's a state and local issue," he said. "But I would highly recommend that you have good codes."

Andrew leveled swaths of southern Florida in August 1992, causing $25 billion in damage and killing 43 people in one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

Jarrell warned U.S. residents not to be complacent in thinking that a "Mitch"-like disaster could strike only in poorer countries.

Forecasters say that hundreds or even thousands of people could die in the United States if they are caught on the roadways in case of a mass panic and evacuation.

Jarrell urged coastal residents not to risk getting caught in their cars by heading inland and jamming the highway if they are not ordered to evacuate.

"People who live in regular homes, outside the (flood) area ... maximize their survival chances by staying home."

However, he said people who are ordered to get out should do so. In September, about 60 percent of those ordered out of the Florida Keys when Georges neared failed to do so.

"We could have taken massive casualties there," he said.


May 24 2:06 AM ET

Forecaster Says 'Mitch'-Like Deaths Possible In U.S.

MIAMI (Reuters) - Many who tracked Hurricane Mitch, the vicious 1998 storm that killed 9,000 people in Central America, may have comforted themselves that such a catastrophe could only occur in undeveloped mountainside villages.

But forecasters who prepared Sunday for the June 1 start of what is expected to be another intense six-month Atlantic storm season urged coastal residents to reconsider the chances of a major storm-related loss of life outside the Third World.

Thanks largely to Mitch, the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season's total of 11,000 killed made it the region's deadliest in more than two centuries, since 1780 when that year's "Great Hurricane" killed about 22,000 people in the eastern Caribbean.

Colorado State University Professor William Gray, a respected hurricane forecaster, has predicted that this year's season will see 14 tropical storms, nine of which will grow to hurricane strength, four of them becoming intense hurricanes with top winds of at least 111 mph (179 kph). "Could we have a catastrophe like Mitch in this country," asked Jerry Jarrell, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "I think the answer is probably not that way, but there are other ways that it could happen."

Weather experts have changed their focus on the potential for storm damage in recent years from the threat from high winds and coastal "storm surge" flooding -- the wall of seawater that hurricanes carry on shore -- to that of inland flooding.

Last year's Hurricane Mitch, which dumped up to six feet (two meters) of rain in Honduras and Nicaragua, and Hurricane Georges, which killed more than 500 people on its march through the Dominican Republic and Haiti, both did their worst damage through flooding away from shore.

The storms' heavy rains generated flash floods and mudslides that engulfed entire villages, then left survivors isolated as they battled diseases that claimed more lives.

Such horror is unlikely in the United States and in island areas with fewer people and better communications -- Jarrell noted that Hurricane Hortense led to major flooding in Puerto Rico but was blamed for just 22 deaths in 1996.

But he said heavily populated U.S. coastal areas could be vulnerable if there were a large, mass evacuation and a resulting traffic tie up as a storm neared.

"We think (there) could be ... gridlock because of too many people trying to evacuate and then some sort of an incident on the highway, either a fire or an accident or a bridge stuck up, something like that," he said.

"And then we have a hurricane come and catch a whole bunch of people, perhaps thousands in their automobiles."

A highway construction project snarled traffic and left 10,000 people on roadways near Pensacola, Florida, in 1995, when powerful Hurricane Opal made landfall and caused $3 billion in damages.

If the storm had not taken a turn away from the traffic jam, thousands of people could have been killed, Jarrell said.

Forecasters and emergency managers throughout the Atlantic hurricane basin, which includes the United States, Caribbean islands and the Central and South American Caribbean coasts, are fighting the risk this season by improving communications, encouraging governments to provide shelters, and urging residents to heed evacuation orders, but not to evacuate if they are not told to do so.

In low-lying areas, like the Florida Keys, where forecasters were dismayed when some 50 percent of residents opted to ignore an evacuation order ride out Hurricane Georges last summer, everyone should still escape, Jarrell said.

Pete Myers, 46, of Summerland Key, 24 miles (38.62 km) north of Key West, said he was glad he had fled to a motel in central Florida when Georges approached last September, and that he would leave again.

The storm destroyed his fishing boat, leaving his lift mangled and dock gone. It swept trees away and tore part of the roof and a porch off his house, then left the low-lying area where he lives an isolated, powerless mess for days.

"There was no trash pickup, electricity," he said. "And there's so much to be done. You can't order a pizza, you can't get a cab. Cars were destroyed, so people were without transportation. Streets were filled with filth and litter. It was horrible."

The average Atlantic hurricane season produces 9.3 tropical storms and 5.8 hurricanes, 2.1 of them intense hurricanes. Tropical storms have maximum sustained winds of 39 to 74 miles per hour (62-118 kph). They become hurricanes when those winds exceed 74 mph (118 km).


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