On September 15, Hurricane Sally made landfall as a Category 2 storm near Gulf Shores, Alabama.
As is the case with most tropical systems, the strongest effects from the storm occurred well to the east of the center.
In Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, almost 400 people were rescued from flooded neighborhoods after being drenched by 30 inches of rain.
Residents described the area as “looking like a war zone,” with downed trees and power lines, destroyed homes and businesses, and flooded streets.
Among those hit hard was Escambia River Electric Cooperative, based in Jay, just south of the Alabama border.
“Although more than 10,000 of our members were left without power following Hurricane Sally, we were able to complete power restoration in five days,” says Sabrina Owens, vice president of communications for EREC.
Compounding the devastation was the fact Sally was the 18th named storm of the 2020 season—and she wouldn’t be the last.
“Six weeks later, Hurricane Zeta caused yet another outage for over 6,000 of those same residents,” Sabrina says. “Back-to-back storms can be very frustrating and stressful for a community.
“Our linemen work around the clock to restore power when there are outages of this magnitude, despite often being personally impacted by the storms. And with so many this season, they’ve been stretched thin.”
With the naming of Subtropical Storm Theta on November 9, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season surpassed 2005 as the busiest season ever. Days later, a tropical wave in the Caribbean Sea threatened to become the 30th named storm, Iota.
Trouble Starts Early
The first hint of trouble came in May, when the storm season kicked off several weeks before the normal June 1 start of hurricane season.
That made meteorologists keeping tabs on the situation nervous—particularly because of La Niña, which indicates lower ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific.
The El Niño Southern Oscillation has two opposing phases: El Niño and La Niña. When neither are occurring, the season is considered neutral.
During El Niño, water temperatures in the Eastern Pacific tend to be warmer than usual, which results in less tropical activity in the Atlantic. La Niña—the current phase—makes water temperatures in the Eastern Pacific cooler than normal. This creates prime conditions for an active tropical season in the Atlantic basin.
“Hurricanes hate wind shear,” says meteorologist Chelsea Carlson. “El Niño creates strong winds in the Atlantic, which interfere with the circulation of air in a developing storm, and essentially stops it from growing into a hurricane. On the other hand, La Niña provides ideal conditions for storms to increase in intensity.”
Although more Atlantic hurricanes occur during La Niña, severe tropical storms have occurred during El Niño and neutral seasons. The catastrophic 2005 hurricane season that included Hurricane Katrina occurred during the neutral phase.
Hurricane Andrew—the most destructive hurricane in United States history—also made landfall during a neutral phase.
A Record-Breaking Recipe
La Niña provides the right conditions for developing storms, but it’s just one of many factors contributing to a record-breaking 2020. In addition to La Niña, sea levels and temperatures have been on the rise, contributing to the development of severe tropical storms, and increasing the likelihood of coastal flooding.
Climate scientists have measured a slight increase in the intensity of powerful storms as a result of warming waters, but the effect of the intensity change is small compared to the impact of coastline development.
With more people living close to the coast—and sea levels creeping higher and higher—landfalling storms are becoming more devastating and more dangerous.
While the 2020 season racked up an alarming number of named storms, many were relatively small in scale.
When a disturbance forms over Africa, it has plenty of ocean ahead of it to gain strength and develop into a major hurricane before reaching the United States—if it ever does. This year, many storms formed farther north, closer to the U.S.
“Although this has been a much more active season than we’ve seen in recent years, the frequency has been greater than the intensity,” says Jay Titlow, a senior meteorologist. “Yes, the number of storms is unusual, but not unprecedented. When Harvey made landfall in 2017, it was the first major hurricane to impact the U.S. since Wilma in 2005. There is a sort of ebb and flow to these events, but not enough to form a consistent pattern.”
Still, the frenetic pace of storms this year has taken its toll, particularly in the midst of a pandemic, which adds to the complexities of procuring supplies, evacuating and recovery efforts.
The impact of a severe storm can linger for weeks or months, even when the damage is considered small in scale.
Storms are associated with an increase in injury-related emergency room visits, carbon monoxide poisonings and even a rise in salmonella-related illnesses.
Then there is the stress and anxiety of preparing one’s home and business for a storm, often many times in the same year.
“Over the last few years, a collective sense of storm fatigue has crept in,” meteorologist Chelsea Carlson says. “As a scientist, I find tropical storms fascinating. But seeing the toll they’ve taken on my community and those around me—places where friends and loved ones live—that’s tough. I think we’re all hoping that the 2021 storm season will go easy on us.”
Although it is too early to know what to expect for 2021, if El Niño conditions do develop next summer, hurricane season would likely be below average in activity compared to this year, Chelsea says.
Preparation is always critical.
“It only takes one storm impacting your community to make for a personally devastating hurricane season,” Chelsea says. “Heed advice early and often from the experts at the National Hurricane Center and your local NWS office.
“Make a plan for evacuation, arm yourself with the most current and accurate weather data, and never assume that one storm will be anything like the last.”
How Hurricanes Get Their Names
The World Meteorological Organization is responsible for selecting names for all major storms around the world. The WMO keeps six lists of 21 male and female names that are rotated and recycled every six years.
There are separate lists for storms forming in the North Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, etc. The selected names are intentionally concise, and the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z are no longer used to label storms.
When a storm causes significant damage or loss of life, the WMO may deem it inappropriate to use the name again, in which case it is retired. That happened with Harvey and Katrina.
Prior to 1950, hurricanes were named for the Catholic saints day on which they occurred, such as hurricane Santa Ana, which hit Puerto Rico on July 26, 1825—which coincided with Saint Anne’s Day.
The system of officially naming storms began in 1950, using the joint British-U.S. World War II spelling alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie).
For the first time since 2005—and only the second time in history—the number of storms in 2020 exceeded the 21 Atlantic tropical storm names, so the naming protocol moved to the Greek alphabet.
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