NOAA sees busy hurricane season colliding with COVID-19

Up to 19 named Atlantic storms this year, agency predicts

Fort Lauderdale in November 2018. NOAA on Thursday said it expects an "above normal" Atlantic Ocean hurricane season this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Fort Lauderdale in November 2018. NOAA on Thursday said it expects an "above normal" Atlantic Ocean hurricane season this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 21, 2020 at 3:26pm

The U.S. could experience up to 19 named Atlantic storms this year, in a hurricane season that comes as communities across the country are in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic that promises to complicate emergency responses, including conditions at evacuation centers.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a report Thursday it expects an “above normal” hurricane season from June 1 to Nov. 30. The agency predicted 13 to 19 named storms, which have speeds of at least 39 miles per hour. Federal officials warned that communities and families need to start preparing earlier because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For coastal communities, some of which are still recovering from previous hurricane damage and dealing with a global pandemic, that means going from one crisis to another.

“We're heading into a really major challenge this year,” Stephen Klineberg, founding director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said of the forecast. “We are still under the threat of a pandemic that comes when you're interacting in close quarters with someone you don't know.”

Parts of the country hit by recent storms such as hurricanes Michael, Harvey and Maria are still recovering from the damage. Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in 2017, killing around 3,000 people, and the island is still facing a slow recovery from the estimated $90 billion damage there.

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In places like Houston, a combination of hurricane season, the coronavirus pandemic and job losses from the oil price slump is a triple whammy that could leave lasting damage, said Klineberg.

When Harvey pummeled Texas and Louisiana in 2017, people had to be evacuated into shelters with other families. Many relied on friends and neighbors for help.

“Part of what was such a strong experience in Houston was strangers reaching out to other strangers during the Harvey experience,” said Klineberg, who has surveyed Houston area residents on their concerns about flooding in the area nearly three years after Harvey.

Contact fears

Coronavirus, he said, will likely diminish that altruism as people fear contact with outsiders.

Carlos Castillo, acting deputy administrator for resilience at Federal Emergency Management Agency, said people should seek shelter with friends, family or hotels in safe places rather than in evacuation centers, which could get crowded.

“There will never be enough evacuation center space . . . even in a year when we’re not dealing with COVID-19,” Castillo told reporters Thursday. “Hurricane evacuation centers are meant to keep you safe, but it's not necessarily comfortable, and yes the number of spaces will necessarily be decreased because of the need for social distancing.”

Asked whether FEMA would include viral testing at evacuation centers in its hurricane preparations, Castillo said that is a role for the Department of Health and Human Services, and that FEMA will support those efforts.

If this hurricane season remains above normal as predicted, Gerry Bell, lead hurricane season forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said it would be the fifth consecutive year of higher than normal storm activity.

This year, six to 10 of the predicted storms could become hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or higher, including three to six major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or higher.

An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which six become hurricanes, including three major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or higher.

Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, has been scrutinizing regions still recovering from floods and hurricanes, including Gulf Coast states like Florida, Louisiana and Texas, and Puerto Rico.

"They're an island that has particularly vulnerabilities that intersect with the pandemic," she said. “Any place that has a hurricane has a problem this year.”

Wildfires

The pandemic also collides with wildfire season, which the National Interagency Fire Center predicts could be “problematic” for areas such as Oregon, parts of Washington state, Northern California and the Great Basin where warm and dry conditions could lead to more ferocious infernos this summer.

“In addition to stunted preparations, many of our typical response strategies, like evacuations, planned power outages, and shoulder to shoulder wildfire fighting are riskier and more complicated and no longer tenable in a COVID-19 world,” Carly Phillips, a science fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a May 11 analysis of the wildfire outlook.

Castillo of FEMA acknowledged that the massive unemployment because of the pandemic would make it harder for already struggling individuals and families to adequately plan for natural disasters.

“With tornado season at its peak, hurricane season around the corner, and flooding, earthquakes and wildfires a risk year-round, it is time to revise and adjust your emergency plan now,” said Castillo. “Natural disasters won’t wait, so I encourage you to keep COVID-19 in mind when revising or making your plan for you and your loved ones, and don’t forget your pets.”

Benjamin J. Hulac contributed to this report.

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