Forecasters foresee above average storm year

A tropical disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico has a strong
chance of forming into a tropical depression by late this week as it makes its
way north of Mexico and toward the Gulf Coast, forecasters from the National
Hurricane Center said Tuesday.

Forecasters said there is an 80 percent chance of becoming a
depression by today, as it moves over the central and northwestern Gulf of
Mexico, pouring heavy rains over southeast Louisiana.

If the Gulf disturbance strengthens into a tropical storm,
it will be named Claudette. It is one of three disturbances the National
Hurricane Center is tracking, including Tropical Storm Bill in the Atlantic.

With the six-month hurricane season officially beginning
June 1, Florida emergency-management workers are working with projections that
it will be above average for storms. It got off to an early start as Tropical
Storm Ana formed and dissipated.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month
predicted a 60 percent chance of 13 to 20 named storms (winds of 39 mph or
higher), with six to 10 reaching hurricane strength (winds of 74 mph or higher)
and three to five considered major hurricanes (winds of 111 mph or higher).

The federal agency’s scientists based their projections on
continued warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic
Ocean and Caribbean Sea, weaker tropical Atlantic trade winds and an enhanced
west African monsoon.

“Maybe in the next couple of years we’ll see that switch,
and we’ll start to see a general decreasing trend,” National Weather Service
meteorologist Mark Wool said. “But you know, the wildcard here is
global warming, and we don’t quite know how that’s going to influence that just

Emergency management officials are looking forward to what
the new state director calls the ABCs — “Anything But COVID,” since the Florida
Division of Emergency Management will have surpassed nearly 500 days responding
to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They would love to get back to doing tropical cyclones and
wildfires and things like that, because we have been doing COVID a very long
time, and we’re ready to be doing something else,” division Director Kevin
Guthrie said.

On May 21, President Joe Biden announced that $1 billion is
being made available to states, territories, tribes and rural communities for
what he said is typically the busiest time of the year for disasters in
America: hurricane season in the South and East and fire season out West.

“Last year, as you all know, we faced the most named storms
on record,” Biden said. “Seven out of the 30 named storms alone claimed 86
lives and caused more than $40 billion in damage. This year, NOAA is
focusing on another severe season, perhaps — and God willing — not as bad
as 2020, but still quite bad. We all know that these storms are
coming.  And we’re going to be prepared; we have to be ready.”

Last year, the Atlantic spun a record 30 named storms, with
14 hurricanes. None made landfall in Florida, a relief as the state took direct
hits from major storms each year between 2016 and 2019. 

But that didn’t mean Florida was spared as, for example, the
Pensacola area sustained severe flooding and other damage from Hurricane Sally,
which made landfall across the border in Alabama.

Other than some new residents to the state, Wool said a
positive this year is that the vast majority of Floridians have experience with
storms. That will help as reminders go out to put together storm kits that
include such things as a week’s supply of non-perishable foods and drinks, two
weeks of medicines and first-aid supplies.

And after a year of COVID-19, Guthrie said the state has
stockpiled enough personal protective equipment for several hurricanes and will
again be able to offer non-congregate shelters — hotels and dorms for
individuals or families. Unlike in 2020, such accommodations will be just for
people who test positive for the virus.

To potentially reduce crowding at shelters, residents are
also being asked to know how their homes are built to withstand winds and
flooding as they make evacuation decisions. 

“If we have a Cat 1 storm, that means winds are 75 to about
90 miles an hour, do I need to leave my home?” Guthrie said.
“Because most homes now — underneath the Florida Building Code — are
actually rated to 100 (mph), 115 (mph) and so on. So again, do I really need to
leave my home for winds versus do I need to leave my home for a potential storm

Guthrie also wants people to review their residential
insurance policies, particularly because property values and costs of building
materials have been on the rise while Federal Emergency Management Agency
assistance tops out at $36,000.

“Lumber has gone up,” Guthrie said. “If you were impacted by
a storm this year, the price to rebuild your home is going to be more than what
it was a year ago. So, what we’re telling people to do is go out and get in
touch with your insurance agent. Make sure you have enough coverage to rebuild
your home because your first line of defense is your insurance policy.”

Guthrie also said plans remain from last year for staff
members to respond to simultaneous disasters, with a team working on COVID-19
response in the state emergency operations center shifting to a neighboring
building while a second team takes the desks in the main room to focus on

“We do have additional personnel we would bring on for
responding to the hurricane,” Guthrie said. “We’ve been in that mode since last
year. You know, last year we responded to wildfires, we responded to tornadoes.
We responded to tropical cyclones. We responded to a couple of floods. So,
these guys are used to now responding to multiple incidents at one time.”

Guthrie took over as director on May 3, replacing Jared
Moskowitz, who announced he was stepping down to spend more time with his
family in South Florida.  

But Guthrie isn’t new to the agency. He was appointed as the
division’s chief of staff in October 2018 and was bumped up to deputy director
three months later.

Guthrie has served as public safety and emergency management
director for Flagler County, as a Pasco County assistant administrator for
public safety and spent 23 years as a police officer and emergency-preparedness
coordinator with the Jacksonville Sheriffs’ Office.

David Adlerstein assisted with this story

Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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