The record-shattering 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is over, but the scars it left remain
After six months of fury, tens of billions of dollars in damage, hundreds of fatalities and 30 named storms, the jam-packed and record-filled 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is, on paper at least, coming to an end. The season is defined as a stretch from June 1 to Nov. 30, and while Mother Nature doesn't respect calendars, tropical activity has largely flatlined. Only one unnamed system is present near Madeira Island in the far northeast Atlantic, while the remainder of the ocean basin is virtually silent.
The season was the busiest on record in the Atlantic, with 30 named storms. At least half a dozen of them are expected to be billion-dollar disasters when the damage is finally tabulated, while hundreds died in the barrage of tempests, particularly in Central America.
Forecasters had been calling for an "extremely active" hurricane season as early as late July into August, when it became apparent that atmospheric and oceanic conditions would line up to crank out an assembly line of storms. But no one expected the season to be this hyperactive, with 2020 becoming the fifth consecutive above-average season in a row in terms of storm activity.
Here's how the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season stacks up overall:
- 30 named storms. The average is 12; no prior season had produced more than 28. The Greek Alphabet was tapped into for storm naming for only the second time on record, and was utilized beginning more than seven weeks ahead of the previous record pace seen during 2005.
- Thirteen hurricanes, and six major hurricanes. More than a dozen of this year's systems reached hurricane strength, with sustained winds of 74 mph or greater. A typical year sees closer to six hurricanes, with only one or two Category 3 or greater "major" hurricanes. Only 2005 had more hurricanes in a season, with 15 forming.
- Most U.S. landfalls on record. Twelve named storms made landfall on U.S. soil, including five in Louisiana. Two of those landfalls were within 15 miles of each other.
- Ten rapidly-intensifying storms. Rapid intensification describes a tropical storm or hurricane that strengthens by 35 mph or more in 24 hours. Ten storms did this, tying a record set in 1995. Several storms intensified at rates unprecedented for the time of year or location.
- Latest-forming Category 5 on record. Hurricane Iota became a Category 5 storm in the western Caribbean on November 16. Iota marked only the second time on record that a Category 5 had formed in the Atlantic in November, the only other occasion being the Cuba Hurricane of 1932.
- 73% more "active" than normal. A season's activity isn't measured by just the number of them that formed. There's also a measure called ACE, or Accumulated Cyclone Energy, which incorporates the intensity and longevity of each of a season's tropical storms and hurricanes. This season has racked nearly 180 ACE units to date, compared to an average of 104.
- The 2020 season also featured two double-whammies, one of which appears entirely unprecedented in roughly 150 years of Atlantic hurricane bookkeeping.
- Hurricanes Eta and Iota both struck near Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua only fifteen miles apart and within a span of two weeks, bringing Category 4 impacts to the coast and feet of rain to parts of Central America.
- Similarly, Category 4 Hurricane Laura ravaged Lake Charles, Louisiana in late August, while Delta then brought winds of near 100 mph barely six weeks later in early October.
Meteorologists across the industry were tasked with keeping track of frequent, simultaneous storms spinning across the ocean in rapid succession. Nowhere was this truer than at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, where forecasters issued hundreds of advisories covering every storm, all while working in a coronavirus-restricted environment.
"It was a remarkable season, certainly the busiest season in terms of impacts and number of storms since I've been there," said Michael Brennan, branch chief of the Hurricane Center's hurricane specialist unit, who started there in 2008. "Basically everybody along the entire East and Gulf coast got affected in some way. There were watches and warnings up from Texas to Maine," he said in an interview.
He described the season as "relentless."
Among the most challenging elements, he said, was the number of storms that developed and intensified as they neared shore. That, coupled with the high frequency of rapid intensification that characterized storms this season, made forecasting and warning vulnerable coastal residents difficult.
"Fourteen storms required watches and warnings on the first advisory we issued," explained Brennan. "Right off the bat we had to tell people they could have hazardous conditions."
He contrasted this season's storms to Hurricane Irma, which spent more than a week in 2017 barreling westwards across the open Atlantic nearing peak strength before lashing the Windward Islands.
"We had a lot of [rapid intensification] near land in the watch/warning timeframe," said Brennan. "You look at something like [Hurricane] Delta, those types of rapid fluctuations in intensity are difficult to even observe and make sense of in real time. Trying to forecast them is really tough."
Hurricane intensity forecasts still lag behind track forecasts in their accuracy.
While the storms may have dissipated, the damage they left behind remain etched in the landscape in peoples' lives. Steve Bowen, a meteorologist and the head of disaster insight at Aon, says that the damage could tally in the tens of billions of dollars.
"From an economic loss perspective, the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season was costly, very impactful, and will require a multi-year recovery effort in several hard-hit areas," wrote Bowen in an email. "Preliminary estimates show $41 billion in tropical cyclone losses across the entire Atlantic basin; of which $37 billion occurred on the U.S. mainland."
Despite the costly price tag, it could have been a lot worse.
"This [year's damage cost is] much lower than peak years in 2017 ($307 billion) and 2005 ($238 billion)," Bowen wrote, alluding to seasons that included Harvey, Irma, Maria, Katrina, Rita and Wilma, for example.
"It's hard for most of us to associate the 2020 Atlantic season with the word 'lucky', but given the record-setting volume of landfalls, most major coastal U.S. metro areas came away generally unscathed," Bowen said.
Not everyone was so lucky though. In Lake Charles, Louisiana, piles of debris still line city streets, with blue tarps covering roofs pried from homes during the twin tempests. Ben Terry, a meteorologist at KPLC-TV, says his community is still working to heal.
"It was unbelievable," said Terry, reminiscing on the season in an interview. "[Hurricane] Laura was something that you just really couldn't imagine, and then Delta [hit] just six weeks later as we were getting into recovery."
Terry's home was destroyed by Hurricane Laura, while the 400-foot tower at his television station collapsed and crushed part of the studio. Following the storm, he was forced to stay with a friend and work out of an affiliated station and studio in Baton Rouge, returning home shortly before Delta struck the beleaguered community.
"It made it very tough," said Terry. "It would have been very easy just to pack up and leave when you lose everything and your house. But when you're a meteorologist, you're on TV, you have to be strong and tell the public you'll get through this. And at the end of the day, you have to deal with the same thing everyone else is dealing with."
Encountering Delta just over a month after Laura was an unwelcome dose of déjà vu for Terry and Lake Charles. He found himself asking "is this real?"
"Delta was coming in as a stronger storm, and it was surreal to think this could possibly happen again," recalled Terry. "It was like, "this can't happen, the track's going to change," and ultimately it came ashore thirteen miles east of where Laura made landfall."
The road to recovery for Lake Charles will be long and arduous, coming as parts of Central America are reeling from their back-to-back storms and several Caribbean Islands pick up the pieces of their communities as well.
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