The 2019 Hurricane Season Will Be 'Near Normal.' But Normal Can Still Be Devastating

May 23, 2019
Originally published on May 24, 2019 6:11 am

Federal weather forecasters are predicting a "near normal" number of storms this hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 1.

Between nine and 15 named storms, including includes tropical storms, are predicted to form in the Atlantic this year, said Neil Jacobs, acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Of those, between four and eight are predicted to become full-blown hurricanes, with winds capable of removing shingles and taking down power lines, Jacobs said Thursday at a news conference to announce the forecast. And between two and four storms are expected to strengthen into so-called major hurricanes, with winds strong enough to snap trees and tear off roofs.

If this year's forecast is correct, it could be a very similar season to last year, when 15 named storms formed, two of which — Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas and Hurricane Michael in Florida — became major hurricanes. Both storms were extremely destructive.

"The primary goal of today's outlook is to encourage the public to prepare before the start of the hurricane season," Jacobs said.

Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane forecaster at NOAA, said people shouldn't be fooled into complacency by the word "normal."

"Nine to 15 named storms is a lot," he said. "Two to four major hurricanes is a lot. So the key message is: We're expecting a near-normal season, but regardless, that's a lot of activity. You need to start getting prepared for the hurricane season now."

This year's outlook is shaped by two competing meteorological phenomena. On one hand, the climate pattern known as El Niño is happening this year, which generally suppresses hurricane activity in the Atlantic. At the same time, the water at the surface of the tropical Atlantic and the Caribbean is warmer than usual. That warm water acts like an engine for hurricanes, fueling their creation and making them bigger and wetter.

While ocean temperatures fluctuate under normal climate conditions, global warming is also causing ocean waters to get hotter. The overall global surface temperature has already risen more than 1 degree Fahrenheit compared with pre-industrial times.

That suggests increasing hurricane risk, as big, wet storms become more likely.

Underscoring the "be prepared" message, the meteorologists who generally take center stage at such forecast announcements were joined Thursday by an official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"My message today: It only takes one. It only takes one land-falling hurricane to cause great destruction to a community," warned Daniel Kaniewski, a deputy administrator at FEMA. He reminded Americans to keep spare water, food, medications and an emergency radio, and to review local evacuation details.

Jacobs also focused his remarks on hurricane-related flooding. Hurricanes Harvey and Florence both came ashore and stalled, dumping massive amounts of rain and flooding hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, many of which were not covered by flood insurance.

"Flood insurance is not included in your homeowner's policy. You have to request it separately," Jacobs said. He warned that hurricane-related flooding could spell financial disaster for those who rely solely on FEMA's assistance to rebuild after a storm.

While flood insurance is important to many individuals and families, the long-term viability of the current flood insurance system is unclear. The federal government is the largest provider of flood insurance in the U.S., and the National Flood Insurance Program is struggling under billions of dollars in debt.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Federal storm forecasters say this year's Atlantic hurricane season will be near normal. As NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports, that still means a lot of potentially damaging storms.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Federal hurricane forecasters are predicting between nine and 15 named storms this year. That includes tropical storms. Two to four of those will become so-called major hurricanes, which means wind speeds capable of tearing the roof off a house. So yeah, Gerry Bell of the National Hurricane Center says don't be fooled by the term normal.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GERRY BELL: Nine to 15 named storms is a lot. Four to eight hurricanes is a lot. Two to four major hurricanes is a lot. So the key message is we're expecting a near normal season. But regardless, that's a lot of activity. You need to start getting prepared for the hurricane season now.

HERSHER: At a press conference today, he and other federal weather officials repeated that warning over and over. Be prepared. It's a reaction to two years in a row of above-average damage from hurricanes - hundreds of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of homes wrecked. FEMA even sent someone to today's event to deliver a warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DANIEL KANIEWSKI: My message today - it only takes one. It only takes one landfalling hurricane to cause great destruction to a community.

HERSHER: Daniel Kaniewski is a deputy administrator at FEMA. He focused a lot of his remarks on preparing for flooding. That's because even hurricanes with relatively low wind speeds can cause a lot of damage. Take hurricanes Florence and Harvey in the last two years. Both dropped record-breaking rain.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KANIEWSKI: Flood insurance is not included in your homeowner's policy. You need to request it separately.

HERSHER: Forecasters did note that the El Nino climate pattern is happening this year. That usually means fewer hurricanes but not this year. This El Nino won't give the U.S. that break. That's because the water in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is warmer than average in part because the whole Earth is getting hotter. And hot water acts like an engine for hurricanes, fueling their creation and making them bigger and wetter. Together it all adds up to a normal year, and normal can be a real punch in the gut. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.