U.S. government forecasts above-normal 2021 Atlantic hurricane season

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) -The U.S. government on Thursday forecast an above-normal 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, which is already off to an early start with a storm expected to form off Bermuda this week.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast between three and five major hurricanes, with sustained winds of at least 111 miles per hour (178 kph), will form in 2021.

Between six and 10 hurricanes with winds of at least 74 mph (119 kph) are expected out of 13-20 tropical storms in 2021, NOAA forecasters said. Tropical storms have winds of at least 39 mph (63 kph).

The average for tropical cyclones in the Atlantic between 1991 and 2020 is three major hurricanes, seven hurricanes and 14 tropical storms. The average increased after NOAA shifted the 30-year period used to set the averages earlier this year.

The 2020 hurricane season was the most active on record and produced 30 named tropical storms.

Matthew Rosencrans, head of forecasting for the U.S. National Weather Service, said climate change affects storm intensity.

“Climate change has not been linked to the frequency of storms but is has been linked to the intensity of storms,” Rosencrans said.

Academic and commercial meteorologists have also predicted an above-average season for 2021, but not as busy as 2020 because of an end to the La Nina system that promotes storm formation.

Although the hurricane season officially begins on June 1 and continues through Nov. 30, tropical storms in May are not unusual.

“In recent years, we’ve had quite a few storms form prior to June 1,” said Philip Klotzbach, who leads Atlantic hurricane season forecasting at Colorado State University. “Since 2015, we’ve had at least one named storm form prior to June 1 each year.”

There have been 19 named storms in May since 1950, Klotzbach said.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba, additional reporting by Liz Hampton in Denver; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Marguerita Choy and Andrew Heavens)

Storms that slammed Central America in 2020 just a preview

By Sarah Marsh and Sofia Menchu

HAVANA/GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – Villagers in Guatemala’s Mayan hillside hamlet Sanimtaca had been about to harvest their cardamom crops that take three years to grow when waves of floodwater triggered by two tropical storms last month washed them away.

Now they have no way to support themselves or to build back the 25 homes – a third of the village – also destroyed in the flash floods that have yet to subside, said Raul Quib, a volunteer from a neighboring community.

“No one had ever seen flooding like it around here,” the 35-year-old who has been collecting food and clothing donations told Reuters. “The school is flooded, the cemetery is flooded.”

This week brought an official close to the most active Atlantic hurricane season ever recorded, with 30 named storms including 13 hurricanes.

And thanks to climate change, experts warn, Central America will have to brace for stronger storm impacts in the future – as well as higher economic damages, unless they prepare.

The region, which already has some of the highest poverty rates in Latin America, was particularly hard hit by hurricanes this year.

Two of the year’s strongest storms, Eta and Iota, ravaged swathes of Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize in unusually quick succession in November.

Altogether, more than 200 people were killed and more than half a million displaced. Hundreds of thousands are now unsure where their next meals will come from.

In Sanimtaca, villagers were able to flee to higher ground in time to escape the flooding. But elsewhere in the mountainous central Guatemalan region of Alta Verapaz, storm-triggered landslides buried dozens of houses with people inside.

Hurricane Eta alone caused up to $5.5 billion in damage in Central America, the Inter-American Development Bank said, while the impact of Iota has not yet been determined.

So far, only Nicaragua has provided official estimates of damage of both storms, putting it at more than $740 million, around 6.2% of gross domestic product.

“If we don’t manage to contain global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, we can expect an intensification of such natural disasters in the region with increasing costs,” said Luis Miguel Galindo, climate change expert and economics professor at Mexico’s UNAM university.

Currently, the world is on track to surpass 2°C of warming above pre-industrial temperatures.

If temperatures rise 2.5 °C by mid-century, the main costs of climate change could tally 1.5% to 5% of the annual GDP of Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a 2017 United Nations report that Galindo co-authored. It put the cost of adapting below 0.5% of GDP.

SLOWER STORMS, LONGER SEASON

Climate change overall is changing how hurricanes behave, scientists say, by warming up the ocean water through which they draw their power. Winds are blowing stronger. Storms are dropping heavier rains.

“We have more energy embedded in the oceans, and 90% from climate change,” said Belizean meteorologist Carlos Fuller, the lead climate change negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States.

And hurricanes are sometimes moving more slowly, stalling for longer on land or traveling farther before breaking up, recent research has shown.

That can mean even more rainfall, wind and destruction for communities in a storm’s path. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey turned Houston’s highways into tidal rivers after stalling for four days near or over the Texas coast. Scientists say Eta and Sally behaved this way, too, hence the unusual flooding in Sanimtaca.

“The evidence is building that there is a human fingerprint on this behavior,” said Jim Kossin, climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In a study published in June 2018 in the journal Nature, Kossin found that hurricane speeds had decreased worldwide by about 10% between 1949 and 2016.

This year’s storm count included six major hurricanes, twice the long-term average, said meteorologist Philip Klotzbach, who researches hurricanes at Colorado State University.

The year also saw nine storms that rapidly intensified, he said. Iota for example spun from a 70 mile-per-hour (113 km-per-hour) tropical storm to a 160-mph (257-kph) Category 5 hurricane in 36 hours. The only other years that saw so many such storms were 1995 and 2010.

That can be “a problem from the warning, preparation perspective,” Klotzbach said. “It is hard to prepare if it’s a tropical storm, and then a day later a Category 4 hurricane.”

More storms could also hit outside of the traditional hurricane season going forwards as ocean waters get warmer sooner, said Susan Lozier, an oceanographer and dean at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Sciences. This year, a record-tying two tropical storms were swirling over the Atlantic in May, before the season’s June 1 start.

But it is still unclear if climate change is influencing the number of storms per year and played a role in the record 30 named storms in the Atlantic Ocean this season given natural variability. The number of hurricanes and major hurricanes for the Northern Hemisphere was near average due to a quieter Pacific.

BOLSTERING RESILIENCE

Communities devastated by a hurricane need to find ways to reduce the risk of damages should another hurricane hit, said World Bank regional sustainable development expert Anna Wellenstein.

Natural hazards “become disasters when we build in the wrong place or in the wrong way,” she said. “Countries need more than a few years to really increase their resilience. This is an effort of decades.”

Moving populations away from coastlines vulnerable to floods and storm surges or hillsides that see landslides could help prevent deaths, some experts suggest. Storm predictions and warning systems could be improved. And vulnerable crops can be swapped out for hardier species.

“Rice can survive (rain) water because it grows in water,” said Fuller, the meteorologist in Belize. “So maybe we need to shift to that sort of grain instead of maize for example which will fall.”

A dollar invested in more resilient infrastructure brings four dollars in economic benefits, said Wellenstein.

But many Central American and Caribbean countries, already confronted with poverty and debt, have struggled to prioritize this among so many other pressing needs.

“They don’t have the resources,” said Galindo. “And the pandemic is further reducing revenue and increasing expenses.”

Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei said last month Central America had been the worst affected region in the world by climate change and it would need help from them to stave off mass migration.

Quib, who volunteered to help Sanimtaca, said he expected most of the youth of the village to emigrate to Canada where they could lead a better life.

“If they were already doing it before this happened, they will do so even more now,” he said.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana and Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; Additional Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Mexico; Editing by Katy Daigle and Lisa Shumaker)

After the floods, assessing Hurricane Sally’s damage

By Devika Krishna Kumar and Jennifer Hiller

GULF SHORES, Ala./HOUSTON (Reuters) – As an Alabama resident, Toby Wallace has seen his fair share of hurricane damage working for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where he handles flood insurance claims.

But that did not prepare him for Hurricane Sally, which flipped his camper and pushed it into his home, breaking off the front steps. High winds drove water through vents and roof, flooding a room.

“It’s gonna be a lot of cleaning,” said Wallace, 49.

Wallace and thousands of other residents along the U.S. Gulf Coast are just starting to tally the damage from Hurricane Sally, which could come in anywhere from $8 billion to $10 billion, well above earlier estimates of $2 billion to $3 billion, said Chuck Watson of Enki Research, which tracks tropical storms and models the cost of their damage.

Hurricanes are normally associated with massive wind gusts and rains on the coast, but inland rains causing floods over a vast region can make a storm even worse, as rivers and streams over spill, flooding communities along the way and causing the damage to as much as double.

The storm made landfall at Gulf Shores, Alabama on Wednesday morning as a Category 2 hurricane but continued carrying heavy rain inland as far north as Virginia on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

Sally’s immediate impact likely caused around $5 billion in damage and cleanup costs, Watson said. The storm has moved away from the coast but will bring several more inches of rain to the U.S. Southeast before dissipating.

“If you’re sitting on a river five miles inland, you’ve got the wind and two feet of rain dumped on you, then four to six days later a few feet of water comes down the river,” Watson said. Inland rains also could affect cotton and peanut harvesting, as five counties in central Georgia had radar totals over 10 inches in 12 hours, Watson said.

Several rivers in Alabama and Florida have not yet crested and are not expected to reach “major flood” stages until Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

Evidence of water damage was rampant as the floods receded along the coast. The facade of an eight-floor apartment building in Gulf Shores was completely blown off, and damaged kitchens and bedrooms were visible, with furniture soaked from the torrential rains that pelted the area on Wednesday.

Wallace of FEMA said that more recently built homes were constructed with some elevation from the ground, so their damage is wind-related.

Numerous buildings had their roofs torn off, and rebuilding electrical, sewage and water systems will cost money.

In Gulf Shores, Paula Hendrickson, 70, evacuated her home near the water and came slightly more inland to her sister’s, thinking it would be safer.

But the wind ripped a fan off the front balcony of her sister’s home and damaged the roof, and Hendrickson’s car ended up flooded by saltwater and is likely a total loss.

“If you’ve been in an airplane that hits turbulence, that’s exactly how it felt. On and off, on and off. All night long,” Hendrickson said, adding, “I’ll never go through it again.”

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller and Devika Krishna Kumar; editing by Steve Orlofsky)