Forecasters were unanimous in their assessment of the 2010 hurricane season: It was expected to be a dangerously active storm season, on par with 2005, the worst hurricane season on record. Hurricane Katrina, the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes on record, came in 2005, and another hurricane passing through the Gulf of Mexico right now would exacerbate the damage from the BP oil spill.
While 2009 was a breather, you need only look back to the 2008 hurricane season for another exceedingly deadly spate, when 16 named tropical storms, stretching from May 30 to Nov. 5, upended life on the coast, particularly in Haiti, where at least 800 people died from successive strong hurricanes. After the Port-au-Prince earthquake, another bad hurricane season is the last thing the poor residents and relief workers need. Eight of the last 15 hurricane seasons rank in the top ten for the most named storms with 2005 in first place with 28 named storms.
What's in store for 2010?
All forecasters agree that the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season is likely to be very active, with lots of tropical storms (sustained winds of 39 mph), hurricanes (sustained winds of 74 mph) and major hurricanes (sustained winds of 111 mph). Though all forecasts are subject to the error that comes with trying to predict complex systems, there are several factors that give researchers confidence in their predictions:
Here's a chart comparing the various forecasts, from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project (TMJ), Accuweather (Accu), against the average:
The number and strength of storms is one factor that influences the destructiveness of a hurricane season. But other factors, both natural and manmade influence how much damage any given storm, or series of storms, will do. Here are five factors and forces that could affect the destructiveness, deadliness and costliness of the 2010 hurricane season.
Watch The Daily Green's senior editor Dan Shapley discuss this story on ABC News:
Update: with the well capped, the threat of a hurricane is diminished; however storms continually disrupted and delayed attempts to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf and permanently seal the well.
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is in right in the path that hurricanes could take, as the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reminds us. What if a hurricane hits the oil slick?
"Depending on the strength of such a tropical storm, rough seas could be a serious problem for containment operations and may cause them to halt until the storm passes," according to Alex Sosnowski, an AccuWeather.com meteorologist. "Strong winds could steer part of the existing surface oil slick toward the northern Gulf Coast or elsewhere. High winds from a hurricane could also cause some the oil to become airborne in blowing spray, while a storm surge could carry contaminants inland. On the other hand, to some extent, rough seas and heavy rain tend to work toward breaking up an oil slick."
While it's unlikely that the oil slick would slow down a major hurricane, if a hurricane is forming in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil slick may inhibit storm development according to a review of scientific literature on the subject by Weather Underground's Jeff Masters.
Still reeling from a spate of 2008 hurricanes when the earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince earlier this year, Haiti is vulnerable to yet more damage from the 2010 hurricane season. Haiti is especially vulnerable because it lacks the building codes that protect U.S. residents from similar storms; it lacks a government that is capable of preparing or responding to the storm, as Cuba manages to move residents out of harm's way; and it lacks the forests that its neighbors like the Dominican Republic have, which means the land is ill-equipped to absorb the shock of a big storm without unleashing deadly mudslides and flash floods.
"Hurricanes exacerbate all of the problems that deforestation has created," says Ethan Budiansky, who has organized tree-planting projects in Haiti for Trees for the Future. "Normally, the root systems of trees would help absorb the extra rainwater and stabilize the soil, reducing the impact of a hurricane, but without this protection the impact of a major storm could be devastating."
While El Niño tends to inhibit hurricane formation, La Niñaa cool pattern in the Southern Pacificdoes just the opposite. While La Niña is not extant, it could emerge soon.
"The main uncertainty in this outlook is how much above normal the season will be. Whether or not we approach the high end of the predicted ranges depends partly on whether or not La Niña develops this summer," said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAAs Climate Prediction Center. "At present we are in a neutral state, but conditions are becoming increasingly favorable for La Niña to develop."
Properly preparing one's home for a hurricane "can absolutely be the determining factor between some damage and complete damage," said Ray Stone, the vice president of catastrophe operations for Travelers Insurance. "It could be very well the difference between a home standing and a home laying on the ground."
Experts have been warning for years that people migrating to the coasts is increasing the risk of serious damage from hurricanes; now, 35 million Americans live along hurricane-prone coasts. Further, while some coastal areas haven't experienced a hurricane in years or even decades, there's no telling when one will strike. Many are unprepared. "If this outlook holds true, this season could be one of the more active (hurricane seasons) on record," said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator. "The greater likelihood of storms brings an increased risk of a landfall. In short, we urge everyone to be prepared."
Travelers is highlighting four common myths that homeowners have about preparing for hurricanes:
While NOAA predicts as many as 23 tropical storms in 2010, there are only 21 names prepared. If the worst-case prediction comes through, the latter storms will be named according to the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha. In 2005, 31 storms took us all the way to zeta.
Not only wind, but also flooding can result in property damage even from the coasts (as Ohio and Indiana learned from Hurricane Ike in 2008). While Stone warns that many homeowners don't realize basic insurance policies won't cover flooding, the world's largest provider of property and casualty insurance, Allianz Group, recently cautioned that $1.4 trillion in current U.S. commercial and residential assets are at risk from storm surge. As sea levels rise, due to global warming and melting ice caps, storm surge risk increases (the Northeast U.S. alone faces a $7.4 trillion risk). Another major commercial insurer, First American, has warned that 13 Gulf Coast and East Coast cities face a combined $234 billion risk to property if a Category 5 hurricane were to strike.
Bottom line: The more storms, the more chance for damage.
Here's a look at the 2010 hurricane names we'll see before we get to hurricanes Alpha and Beta, followed by maps showing where the hurricanes went in 2005 (top) and 2008, the years most often referenced in comparison to the 2010 forecast.
2010 Tropical Storm Names
Hurricane Alex: The first named tropical storm of the 2010 hurricane season passed over Honduras, Guatemala, Belize with heavy rains, flash floods and mudslides, then re-entered the Gulf of Mexico and became the first hurricane of the season the first time the first named storm has reached hurricane strength in 15 years. That ominous indicator seems to suggest that forecasters have it right about the 2010 hurricane season. In all, the storm lived from June 25 to July 2. While the eye of Hurricane Alex was far from the BP oil spill, and made landfall along the Texas-Mexico border region, the storm was so large that high winds disrupted efforts to ramp up the oil spill containment, and kept boats off the water for days afterward.
Tropical Storm Bonnie: The second named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season also disrupted oil recovery efforts July 22-24 (as did an unnamed tropical depression July 7-8), because of the heavy rain, wind and surf it brought to the region.
Tropical Storm Colin passed near Bermuda but didn't do much damage.
Hurricane Danielle menaced Bermuda, before passing through the Atlantic Ocean, parallel to the U.S. East Coast.
Hurricane Earl hit the Caribbean and threatened the U.S. East Coast, from the Outer Banks to Cape Cod. Fortunately, the bark of forecasters was far worse than the bite of the storm, and it lost strength faster than anticipated.
Tropical Storm Fiona followed in Earl's wake but did little damage.
Tropical Storm Hermine sprung up surprisingly in the Gulf of Mexico and dealt a blow to the Mexico-Texas border region.
Hurricane Igor formed as a tropical storm Sept. 8 off the coast of Africa and grew into a major Category 4 hurricane.
Hurricane Julia formed as a tropical storm off the coast of Africa Sept. 12 and reached hurricane strength Sept. 14.
Hurricane Karl formed after Julia and before Lisa.
Hurricane Lisa did not affect land.
Tropical Storm Matthew made landfall in Mexico.
Tropical Storm Nicole dissipated before reaching the U.S., but its remnants soaked much of the east.
Hurricane Otto formed out of a tropical storm Oct. 8 in the Atlantic, and dissipated far out to sea.
Hurricane Paula formed Oct. 12 in the Caribbean Sea and hit the Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba.
Hurricane Richard formed as a tropical storm Oct. 21 and reached hurricane strength Oct. 24 before striking Belize and crossing northern Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as a tropical storm.
Hurricane Shary formed briefly. Tropical Storm Shary formed Oct. 28 and affected Bermuda.
Tropical Storm Tomas formed Oct. 29.
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