“Typically, I feel prepared,” Susan Morley-Zender, a New Orleans, Louisiana, resident told VOA when asked about the upcoming start of hurricane season, “but this year I’m much more anxious.”
Hurricane season is a six-month window – from June 1 through the end of November – in which the U.S. states along the Gulf of Mexico and much of the Atlantic seaboard are at the greatest risk of being devastated by a tropical storm or hurricane.
Meteorologists poring over data and weather models agree 2022 could produce an especially treacherous season for Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and – historically one of America’s most storm-ravaged states – Louisiana.
“We’re predicting a 65% chance that the 2022 hurricane season will be above normal,” Matthew Rosencrans, lead hurricane outlook forecaster for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told VOA. If Rosencrans is correct, this will be the seventh consecutive year above normal.
While unable to predict the exact number of storms that will make landfall, NOAA released an outlook this week that projects 14 to 21 named storms, six to 10 hurricanes and three to six major hurricanes will form in ocean waters around the region this year.
It’s frightening news for south Louisiana residents who, due to their proximity to the Gulf, are especially exposed.
“And the news is even worse because we’ve had a few difficult years in a row,” Morley-Zender noted.
Her home is still damaged from Hurricane Ida, which hit Louisiana last August as a Category 4 storm with 240 km/h winds.
The second-most intense hurricane in Louisiana history, Ida left hundreds of thousands of residents with damaged or destroyed homes and without electricity.
“We have $145,000 in damage, and we’re having an impossible time getting the insurance company to cover it,” Morley-Zender said. “Our roof is still damaged, and our home needs to be gutted, but here comes another hurricane season.”
A target for hurricanes
Morley-Zender said she’s not alone.
“I was flying home recently, and you could still see hundreds of blue tarps covering roofs,” she said. “We haven’t recovered yet.”
Louisiana’s propensity to take direct hits from hurricanes has been well documented since the first French settlers arrived and began keeping records. But experts note the problem has worsened in recent years.
“The past few years have been extremely busy for the Gulf Coast and especially for Louisiana,” said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist with the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University. “In the past two years Louisiana has had six landfalling named storms, four of which were hurricanes and three of which were major. By comparison, the state didn’t have a single major hurricane between 2006 and 2019.”
What’s to blame for the recent increase of hurricanes and tropical storms in the Gulf Coast region? According to experts, it’s a confluence of many factors.
Eighty-five percent of these storms develop in the Atlantic Ocean between western Africa and the Caribbean. In recent hurricane seasons, the expansive Bermuda-Azores high pressure feature has been positioned in such a way that it ushers more storm systems from the Atlantic Ocean into the Gulf of Mexico.
“Once there,” according to Xubin Zeng, director of the Climate Dynamics and Hydrometeorology Collaborative at the University of Arizona, “warmer-than-usual water in the Gulf of Mexico makes those storms stronger than they would be otherwise.”
Those warmer waters, Zeng said, are due to climate change, but also to a multi-decade cyclical pattern that sees the heating and cooling of the oceans. We are currently in the “warmer” portion of that cycle, increasing the likelihood of stronger storms.
Adding to the confluence of factors is the La Niña climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean that affects both Pacific and Atlantic storms.
“Whereas El Niño sends stronger winds to the eastern part of the United States, which can act to break up tropical storms and hurricanes,” Zeng explained, “La Niña produces less wind, allowing storms to continue to strengthen.
“And, on top of all that, there is something called the Loop Current positioned in recent years in a specific part of the Gulf of Mexico that supercharges hurricanes heading toward the Gulf Coast states,” he continued. “It’s more warm water, and it’s how Hurricane Katrina and – more recently – Hurricane Ida were able to get so strong. So far this season, the Loop Current seems positioned to do the same thing.”
Zeng said 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and 2021, when Ida came ashore, were two of the most active hurricane seasons on record. Through his work at the University of Arizona, he believes this year will be more like last year than 2005.
While no one wants a repeat of 2005 when Katrina caused over 1,000 fatalities and more than $100 billion in damage, this year’s forecast is still bad news for Gulf Coast residents still recovering from past hurricanes.
“It’s exhausting,” Chris Sisk told VOA. Sisk is a bankruptcy and debt settlement lawyer in Louisiana. Many of his clients are struggling to make mortgage payments while also overseeing repairs on their hurricane-damaged homes. “You’re either dealing with the aftermath of a major hurricane or bracing for another, imagining the worst and how it will affect you and your family. For people with limited income, it’s only harder.”
In the south Louisiana communities of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, for example, more than 5,000 families are still in – or waiting for – temporary FEMA housing while their hurricane-damaged homes sit unrepaired.
“It complicates preparing for the upcoming hurricane season when we still have so many who are vulnerable because of the previous one,” explained Anna Nguyen, NOLA Ready Communications Director for the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness.
Still, city, state and federal officials say they are working hard to ensure New Orleans is ready if storms make landfall this year.
Hurricane Ida, Nguyen said, showed the city government how important it was to prioritize the most vulnerable, including low-income residents, the elderly, the unhoused, those with no vehicles and residents who need uninterrupted medical assistance or depend on energy-powered medical devices.
But regardless of such efforts, challenges remain.
Experts say, for example, despite the region’s recent and tragic history with deadly storms, pleas for residents to prepare for hurricane season sometimes fall on deaf ears.
“There are many who take hurricane season seriously, especially after so many damaging storms in recent years,” AccuWeather lead hurricane forecaster Dan Kottlowski told VOA, “but there are others who become complacent – especially if their home escaped a storm unscathed.”
Hurricane Ida, Kottlowski said, is a good example, because New Orleans – the largest city in the region – missed the brunt of the storm. If the hurricane had drifted just 25 kilometers to the east, the damage could have been even more severe.
“You have a lot of old-time residents who can list all these storms they survived over the years,” he said, “but they’re missing a really important point. We’re not talking about the storms of 30 years ago anymore. Today’s hurricanes are traveling over warmer water. They’re more frequent, they’re stronger and you have to prepare for them now.”
That’s the annual process many Gulf Coast residents are engaged in now, with the start of hurricane season looming. They’re making sure generators are working, that they have evacuation plans in place and that they have emergency supplies of food and water at the ready.
It’s a scary time for many, and inconvenient for all. In recent years, some have chosen to move away rather than risk the uncertainty of another stormy season.
Most decide to stay, however.
“It’s my home,” explained New Orleanian Timothy Smith, an electrician. “This is one of the pains of living in the best city in the world.”