Will our luck hold?
It’s going on a decade since a “major” hurricane hit the United States.
Not that damaging storms haven’t happened — in 2012, Sandy slammed the Northeast and Isaac swamped much of southeast Louisiana, and, in 2008, Gustav battered Baton Rouge.
But since 2005, the year of Katrina and Rita, no storm with winds reaching at least 111 mph — the official threshold for a Category 3 hurricane — has made landfall on the U.S. coast. There have been Category 5 hurricanes in the last nine years, just none that made it to U.S. land.
While nine years without landfall of a major hurricane — defined as a Category 3, 4 or 5 storm — isn’t a record, it does come close, according to information put together by LSU researchers. For the U.S. Gulf Coast, the longest stretch of no major hurricanes was 12 years from 1861 to 1872, but there are some caveats with that number.
Populations along the Gulf Coast at the time were spread out, so storms could go unreported. In addition, that stretch of time includes the Civil War, when the nation’s attention, and record keeping, wasn’t focused on the weather, meteorologists point out.
“That’s old and data may be missing,” said Hal Needham, program manager for the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program with LSU.
With the official hurricane season kicking off on Monday, people are sure to reflect back to 2005, when four major hurricanes hit. There were Katrina and Rita, of course, but also Dennis and Wilma in Florida. All four were Category 3 storms, although many of them had gotten up to Category 5 wind speeds of 157 mph or higher at some point before they reached land.
So what’s the significance of this lull in major hurricanes in the United States?
Not much, said Barry Keim, state climatologist.
It’s likely a combination of weather patterns, steering currents in the atmosphere, dry air that helps hamper storm formation and some good old-fashioned luck, Keim said.
“It’s often many different factors,” Needham agreed.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s pre-season forecast called for a below-average season this year with the formation of six to 11 named storms. They predicted three to six of those storms could grow into hurricanes, and up to two of those becoming major hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph.
Forecasters, public officials and emergency response managers are quick to point out that a below-normal season isn’t a reason not to prepare for the season.
Ken Graham, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Slidell, cautions repeatedly that “it only takes one.” It doesn’t matter if there’s one storm or 15 during a hurricane season, if one hits a coastal community, it’s a bad year.
This year, the lower than average season is attributed in part to an El Niño condition of warmer-than-normal water in the Pacific Ocean. An El Niño usually produces more upper-level winds that can hamper a tropical storm’s development or growth. In addition, forecasters say Atlantic Ocean temperatures are near normal, meaning there isn’t extra heat in the water to help fuel storms.
Although some people likely breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced the El Niño would likely stay in place through the hurricane season, experts point out that even these years can have bad storms.
In New Orleans, the hurricane to remember before Katrina was Betsy in 1965, and then in 1972, Hurricane Agnes made landfall in Florida and moved up the east coast. Both of these devastating storms formed during El Niño years, according to a paper in the Bulletin of American Meteorological Society in 1999.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.