The Nantucket emergency preparedness council is meeting after hours. People from Miami to New York are ordering custom-made hurricane-proof windows. And volunteers are working around the clock at Fort Tilden beach in the Rockaways to fortify sand dunes.
That’s what Memorial Day weekend looked like seven months after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on much of the East Coast and just a few days ahead of the official start of the 2013 hurricane season, which is expected to be particularly intense and potentially dangerous.
Yes, it’s already time to batten down the hatches, even with temperatures barely reaching 70 degrees in much of the Northeast over the weekend.
This hurricane season, which lasts for a full six months starting June 1, there’s a 70 percent chance of three to six major Atlantic storms, according to new projections released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA also is predicting 13 to 20 storms with intense winds of 39 miles per hour or higher, called named storms, seven to 11 of which could become non-major hurricanes.
That’s much higher than average projections for the six-month Atlantic hurricane season. Typically there are 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and three major hurricanes.
While Sandy has been retired from the rotating list of hurricane names, the World Meteorological Organization has prepped 21 others for the 2013 season: Andrea, Barry, Chantal, Dorian, Erin, Fernand, Gabrielle, Humberto, Ingrid, Jerry, Karen, Lorenzo, Melissa, Nestor, Olga, Pablo, Rebekah, Sebastien, Tanya, Van and Wendy.
From Katrina to Sandy, Atlantic hurricanes have become more active and intense since 1995, when climatologists identified a pattern of strong West African monsoons and above-average temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. El Niño, which typically suppresses hurricanes, is not expected to develop this year.
Meteorologists are scrambling to use every new technology at their disposal to predict where storms will hit, but experts say projecting where and even when storms will make landfall remains an imperfect science.
“It’s like looking into a crystal ball and telling me that I’m going to win the lottery tomorrow,” said Hans Graber, chairman of applied marine physics at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
“We can say a lot about whether it’s going to be warm summer or a wet summer, but we can’t say whether the projected August weather pattern will lead to storms in this town or that city,” Graber said. “We’re just not there.” Technology that can project regions where storms are likely to hit may be available in 10 to 15 years, he added.
In the meantime, Graber and his team are working on digital elevation models that can predict the most vulnerable areas of hurricane-prone regions, with a particular focus on New York City and the surrounding areas in the wake of Sandy.
And in July, with hurricane season under way, NOAA will make a forecasting supercomputer technology available online, providing enhanced images of storms and more accurate projections of storm intensity. Also new this year, in the wake of Sandy, NOAA will receive real time Doppler radar data from its “Hurricane Hunter” planes. Brave pilots fly the small planes into developing storms to get data on their location and intensity and transmit the data back to federal and local governments to warn residents of potentially deadly storms.
Back on the ground, beach towns and local businesses are already prepping for the 2013 hurricane season.
Dave Fronzuto, Nantucket’s head of emergency management, dropped off some FEMA officials at the ferry Tuesday morning in between meetings about hurricane preparedness.
“We’re updating everything” in the aftermath of Sandy, he said. “We’re installing a new notification system for severe weather for our 50,000 seasonal visitors in addition to our locals.”
And John Kirchner, a spokesman for Marvin Windows, which has a line of hurricane-proof windows, says his company is gearing up for an especially busy season. “We have strong sales in places where impact-resistant windows are mandated by codes, in coastal regions, but also all over the country,” he said.
But Shuyi Chen, a professor of physical oceanography at the Rosenstiel School, says the nature of hurricane predicting means it may be a bit too early to panic.
Many major hurricanes, like Andrew, the 1992 hurricane that ranks as one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history, hit during low-activity hurricane seasons.
“The other extreme is we can have a very active season like we did in 2010 or 2011, with 17 or 20 storms in the mid-Atlantic ocean, but none of them hit land in a major way,” she said.
Chen said she fears that ordinary people will get too worried about projections, and then when storms are relatively tame, they’ll ignore the next warning. She has plenty of anecdotal evidence: the morning Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, plenty of New Yorkers were out walking their dogs and jogging, unfazed by Hurricane Irene the year before, a storm that amounted to little more than an unpleasant afternoon in the city.
“The predictions are often inaccurate, people get overly alarmed, and next year they won’t be as alert,” she said.
“We can’t predict hurricanes seven months before the event,” she added. “Predicting five to seven days before a storm hits is the most accurate time frame. But the uncertainty is just so large.”