Hurricane luck will run out: Column
Roger Pielke Jr. 7:05 p.m. EDT June 9, 2014
In 1933, Richard Gray, a U.S. government weather forecaster, noted that Florida had been hit by at least 37 hurricanes over the 45 years ending in 1930. During this period, the longest stretch with no tropical storms was only two years.
When the 2014 hurricane season officially began on June 1, the Sunshine State had gone more than eight years without being struck by a hurricane. It was back on Oct. 24, 2005, when Hurricane Wilma emerged from the Gulf of Mexico and caused billions of dollars in damage in South Florida. In fact, Wilma was the last Category 3 or stronger storm to hit the USA.
The 3,151 days and counting with no Florida hurricane and no major U.S. hurricane shatters the previous records for hurricane "droughts," at least back to the turn of the previous century. In fact, from 1900 through 2013, the United States experienced a decrease in hurricane landfalls of more than 20%, and the strength of each year's landfalling storms has also decreased by more than 20%.
Seasons highly variable
Even so, I'd caution against putting too much significance on these numbers, as North Atlantic hurricane seasons are highly variable. In fact, the choice of time period makes a difference. For instance, starting the analysis in 1970, at the lowest point of 20th century hurricane activity, leads to an increasing trend.
But make no mistake: We can say with some certainty that there is little evidence to suggest that U.S. hurricanes have become more common or stronger. The recent report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agrees: "No robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin."
Arguably, we are living in a lull of hurricanes, at least in the context of the past 100 years or so.
Residents of the Northeast — New York and New Jersey, in particular — might disagree. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy resulted in more than $50 billion in damage, and debate lingers over whether it was actually a hurricane when it hit landfall.
It would be a big mistake to conflate hurricane damage with storm frequency or intensity. Consider that the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 resulted in $76 million in damage when it devastated what is today downtown Miami. Without a doubt, a repeat of that storm would result in much more damage, but how much?
Huge potential damage
Along with colleagues, I have conducted research to explore how much damage past hurricanes would cause were they to strike today's population and development. We estimate, for example, that the 1926 Miami storm would result in more than $180 billion in damage were it to hit in 2014. That is almost twice the damage of Hurricane Katrina and nearly four times that of Sandy.
We tend to have short memories when it comes to disasters. After 2004, when four hurricanes struck Florida, and the record 2005 season that delivered three tropical storms and five hurricanes, insurance and reinsurance rates skyrocketed as many thought that we had entered a "new normal."
Today, by contrast, there is strong downward pressure on rates as a shortage of damaging hurricanes has contributed to a glut of capital available to backstop hurricane risk.
Whether there are climatological reasons for the lengthy hurricane drought or whether it's just the result of randomness, we can say with 100% certainty that our luck will run out.
When it does, we will have no excuse not to be prepared. Writing in 1933, government forecaster Gray observed, "If a building is properly constructed, including the proper type of roof and roofing material, and is securely anchored to the proper kind of foundation, it will not sustain serious structural damage in a hurricane of major intensity." Strong buildings matter as considerable water damage occurs to structures that are compromised by wind damage.
The U.S. has an excellent track record with respect to preparing for hurricanes, so much so that the exceptions stand out. But we cannot let the current lull in landfalls lead to a letting down of our guard. The next big one is coming; it is just a matter of time.
Will we be ready? Are you ready?http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/06/09/hurricane-florida-climate-change-infrastructure-weather-column/10257787/