Coronavirus

NOAA sees busy hurricane season, as pandemic strains emergency services

NOAA's Climate Prediction Center said Thursday it predicts a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season this year.

Miami

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned on Thursday they expect a busy hurricane season this year, potentially sending a higher-than-normal number of storms across the Atlantic and straining U.S. emergency services that are already stretched thin because of the coronavirus pandemic.

NOAA forecast the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season that runs from June through November will include 13 to 19 named storms, with six to 10 possible hurricanes. Three to six of those could become "major" hurricanes of Category 3 or higher, with top winds of at least 111 mph and the potential to trigger major disasters.

An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, with 6 becoming hurricanes, according to NOAA. Already this year, one named storm, Arthur, has developed ahead of NOAA's outlook.

If 2020 does meet that forecast, it would mark a new record of five consecutive above-normal Atlantic hurricane seasons, surpassing a previous record of four seasons during 1998 to 2001, Gerry Bell, the lead forecaster with the Climate Prediction Center, told reporters.

NOAA's Climate Prediction Center predicted a 60 percent chance of an above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, with a 30 percent chance of a near-normal season. The agency predicted just a 10 percent chance of a below-normal season.

"NOAA's analysis of current and seasonal atmospheric conditions reveals a recipe for an active Atlantic hurricane season this year," said acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs in a statement.

The outlook for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season also comes as researchers at NOAA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison identified a link between the growing intensity of tropical storms and human-driven climate change, mapping out the growing strength of hurricanes and typhoons over the past four decades.

NOAA said Thursday a combination of factors contributed to predictions for above-normal storm activity, including warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, as well as El Niño conditions that can suppress hurricane activity and are expected to remain neutral or to trend toward La Niña.

Should more of this year's storms make landfall, it could pose problems for state and local emergency responders and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which have been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and would see their efforts complicated by social distancing and other measures enacted to slow the spread of Covid-19.

FEMA warned earlier this week that this year's hurricane season poses "added complexities" for first responders and state and local officials amid the pandemic. It's advised communities to secure "non-congregate" shelters for evacuees, such as hotels and dormitories, and ensure search-and-rescue teams and volunteers have proper protective equipment to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Carlos Castillo, acting deputy administrator for resilience at FEMA, told reporters that the agency has responded to more than one large disaster at the same time before, such as in 2018, when the agency responded to two major hurricanes on the East Coast and wildfires in California.

"I want to reassure the nation that FEMA continues to take deliberate and proactive steps, working closely with our state, local, tribal, territorial, federal, nonprofit and private sector partners to safeguard our ability to respond and recover from future disasters that may arise during this pandemic," Castillo said.

In a hurricane preparation guidance released Wednesday, FEMA said it will “generally minimize” deployments to disaster-hit areas, an acknowledgment of both strained capacity and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to limit unnecessary person-to-person contact to curb the coronavirus. Instead, FEMA will rely more on virtual coordination.

“If you’re in a situation where you’ve got a declaration or where a storm has hit, yeah, we are looking at ways to scale back,” FEMA spokesperson Lea Crager told POLITICO.

Social distancing measures also have complicated evacuation plans for areas that lie in a storm's path. FEMA has discouraged use of gymnasiums, arenas and convention centers that traditionally double as shelters. FEMA instead emphasized “non-congregate” shelters such as hotels and dormitories, and suggested people consider staying home even under conditions like power outages.

As a result, overall shelter capacity will likely be diminished this year, Crager said, meaning communities will have to “think outside the box” — though she acknowledged people might be afraid to go to shelters anyway given potential for viral infection. FEMA has tried to smooth the process for emergency planners by signaling to them early that it will reimburse a portion — typically at least 75 percent — of expenses for securing those types of non-congregate shelters.

The long-standing emergency plans that communities dust off every hurricane season tend to rely on massive shelters, so changing their procedures will present challenges, said Daniel Kaniewski, the former FEMA deputy administrator who left the agency in February.

“You want to get this nailed down with as much advance notice as possible so states can plan based on that policy,” said Kaniewski, who is now managing director at insurance firm Marsh & McLennan. “Honestly, when these policies change, it takes a lot of coordination and planning and even exercising of that new policy. You can’t just flip a switch.”

But some towns don’t have enough hotels or motels to meet local needs, said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, which works with local governments along the nation’s largest river.

Even coping with the simplest preparations that FEMA has outlined is a struggle, he said, and many local governments will struggle to pay for rooms even if they have them, or to cover the costs for personal protective equipment and acquire tests needed to handle potential evacuees.

“What cities are telling me is they don’t have enough money right now to handle a pandemic and a major disaster at the same time,” Wellenkamp said. “We’ve spent so much money on the pandemic and our revenues have taken such a hit because of the closures and unemployment."

Even if the federal government promises to reimburse localities, that "doesn’t help you if you don’t have the cash to make the purchases in the first place,” Wellenkamp added.

The twin pandemic and hurricane efforts are also stretching nonprofit organizations that help locate shelter sites, staff evacuation centers and bring in necessary supplies and food, said Gregory Forrester, CEO of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a coalition of nonprofit groups.

Many volunteers are elderly and will be vulnerable to Covid-19, he said, which, combined with the imperative to keep the virus from spreading to new areas, means trying to find additional local personnel without underlying medical conditions. Many nonprofits also haven’t been able to fundraise for the hurricane season while they respond to the coronavirus.

“The cost factors are higher but you plan for a certain degree and hope for the best,” Forrester said. “But it’s like any other hurricane season — nobody could have ever predicted a Harvey and Maria within six weeks of each other” in 2017.