By LOIS KINDLE
This is the time of year when Floridians fix their eyes on the Atlantic Ocean and the intense storms that brew in its waters. Hurricane season starts tomorrow.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting the likelihood of a “near-normal” season this year, which means the production of nine to 15 named storms with 39-mph winds or higher, including four to eight hurricanes with 74-mph winds or higher. Two to four of these hurricanes could potentially develop into category 3, 4 or 5 storms of 111 mph or higher.
“There’s a 40% chance of a normal season, a one in three chance of an above-normal season and a one in three chance of a below-normal season,” said Dan Noah, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Ruskin. “I tell people to ignore the long-range forecast and prepare for one storm each year.” That preparation is critical.
“Before 2016, a hurricane had not hit Florida since Wilma in 2005, and that’s very unusual,” Noah said. “The last major hurricane to hit Tampa Bay was the 1921 storm whose eyewall passed Tarpon Springs and pushed 11 feet of water onto Bayshore Boulevard.
“But we’ve had three major hurricanes in the past three years: Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017 and Michael in 2018. Those three storms caused $265 billion in damages.
Noah said due to increasing sea levels and coastal development, the impact of a major hurricane would be catastrophic. “The chances of that happening are one in 200, so you could live your entire life and never see one,” he continued. “But we never know for sure where these storms will hit. If Irma had waited six more hours to turn, she would have gotten into the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane in the Tampa Bay area rather than hitting Naples.”
A storm like that could have a storm surge of up to 22 to 31 feet. Southern Hillsborough County residents must have a plan. Coastal communities with low elevations like Ruskin, Apollo Beach and Gibsonton, are extremely vulnerable to storm surge, so if officials say to evacuate, they’re not kidding.
“Nine of 10 hurricane-related deaths are due to water,” Noah said. “Half are due to storm surge and one of four is due to flooding rain. Only one in 10 hurricane-related deaths is due to wind and tornadoes. That’s why we say avoid the water and hide from the wind.”
“And if you need to evacuate, think in tens of miles rather than 100s,” Noah said. “If you prepare now, you’ll have much less anxiety when the storm approaches.’
The hurricane season officially starts June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Sept. 10 is its peak and the months of August, September and October are generally the most active.