Environment

Florida's hurricane luck is about to run out

A hurricane hasn’t battered the coastline since 2005. But forecasters say that streak will soon come to an end.
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This story has been updated from an earlier version.

MIAMI - Eleven years ago this month, the Atlantic coast was in the midst of an incredibly active hurricane season. By the end of it, the Category 5 storms Katrina and Wilma would leave severe devastation in their wake.

It’s been pretty quiet since then. In fact, Florida hasn’t been battered by a hurricane since that 2005 season. That’s the state’s longest hurricane-free stretch in recorded history. (Hurricane records go back to 1851; category 5 hurricane records only to 1924).

Now, Hurricane Hermine will end Florida’s streak of good luck. Just hours from the state's Gulf Coast, Hermine is set to be the state's first hurricane to make landfall since 2005. It’s expected to strike Thursday night or Friday morning and cause major storm surge flooding.

After so many years without a hurricane strike, experts say people in Florida must take heed and prepare.

“If you haven’t experienced [a hurricane making] landfall in so long, you might start getting complacent,” says Richard Pasch, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “But the threat is there. Hurricanes can hit at anytime.”

Over the past few weeks, Pasch and his colleagues have been tracking a number of storms out at sea. Despite many scientific and technological advancements, it’s still often difficult to know if and how a storm is going to make landfall until it’s very close to the coastline.

Gaston, the third hurricane of the Atlantic season, never made landfall. A “tropical disturbance,” called Invest 99 L, arrived to the east coast of Florida as little more than heavy rains. It then continued westward before turning into Tropical Storm Hermine on Aug. 31. A storm is named when it’s reached tropical storm strength, with winds of at least 39 mph. A storm becomes a hurricane or typhoon when wind reaches 74 mph.

Jeff Masters, of the respected Weather Channel blog Wunderground, says “new systems” are likely to continue rolling off the coast of Africa through the end of September, now that the 2016 hurricane season has entered its most active period -- with forecasters projecting a busier year than normal for storms.

In May, forecasters predicted the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season would be light.

But in early August, forecasters raised the numbers due to conditions that could signal a more active season, like the end of El Niño and weaker winds on the surface of the ocean, which means warmer waters in the Atlantic. Across the globe, ocean temperatures are currently at near-record highs.

“The fact that we’re already at ‘G’ [with Gaston] signals a lot of activity,” Masters said last week. “We’re weeks early for that.”

According to NOAA, the Atlantic coast can now expect 12-17 “named storms” this year. This year, 5-8 storms are expected to become hurricanes, including 2-4 major hurricanes. (The initial outlook estimated 10-16 named storms, 4-8 hurricanes, and 1-4 major hurricanes.)

But, Pasch points out there’s no way to really know what’s coming. “We have assessments from seasonal forecast teams,” he says. “We try, we can run models for months, but a hurricane can come any year, any time.”

Last year, the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science began working with a hurricane simulation tank, called the SUSTAIN (Surge-Structure-Atmosphere Interaction), the world’s largest 3D experiment to study the impacts of hurricanes. It re-creates the wind and wave patterns brought on by a hurricane.

The National Hurricane Center recommends a number of steps for preparedness, including a basic disaster supplies kit, with things like water, food and batteries.

The last hurricane to make landfall in Florida was Wilma in 2005. A hard-hitting Category 5, it killed 25 people, left most of South Florida powerless and caused widespread damage in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. A Category 5 hurricane, which means it has at least 157 mph winds, almost always causes catastrophic damage to property, humans and animals.

Two months before Wilma, Katrina had caused $151 billion in damage and killed 1,833 people, mostly in Louisiana. That same year, the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán were each struck twice by major hurricanes; Cuba, the Bahamas, Haiti, and Mexico’s Tamaulipas state also each got hit once.

In total, between June 2005 and January 2006, 28 storms formed off the Atlantic coast. Fifteen became hurricanes, seven of them major.

The most damaging hurricane ever to hit Florida was in August 1992, when Andrew left 65 dead and destroyed more than 25,000 homes in Miami-Dade county. Andrew effectively changed the way homes and buildings are built in Florida.

Across the country, the U.S. is in the midst of a record drought from hurricanes, with only four hits in the past seven years. Wilma was the last “major storm” (above a Category 3) to hit the country.

In spite of the spontaneous nature of hurricanes, Pasch says Florida’s 11-year hurricane-free streak is unprecedented. “It’s more good luck than anything else,” he says. “We’ll wait and see.”

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