Devastating hurricanes happen even in El Niño years

If you are reading this newsletter, you may consider yourself a more experienced hurricane enthusiast. Many of you subscribe to the daily newsletter because you are worried about your family and home during the hurricane season. Some of you enjoy learning about tropical meteorology and predicting the worst storms on Earth. However, others like to be one step ahead of the next threat because – let’s face it – none of us like surprises during hurricane season.

Whatever your interest in hurricanes, you probably also see the daily hurricane chatter on social media. You have heard—either in this newsletter or elsewhere—of the tug-of-war between a record-breaking warm Atlantic favoring storm activity this season and a rising El Niño in the East Pacific that threatens to fend off Atlantic hurricanes.

You may have even bet on the active vs. inactive season debate. Of course, it’s not so trivial. This never happens.

El Niño or not, abnormally warm Atlantic or not, we will have hurricanes this season. Contemporary records (since 1914, to be exact) have not seen an Atlantic hurricane season without hurricanes. Hurricanes happen – even strong and destructive hurricanes – even during inactive hurricane seasons and even during El Niño years.

The 1983 hurricane season began unremarkable, with two tiny tropical depressions forming in late July that gradually faded away before being given a name. It also ended exceptionally below average, with the lowest activity of any hurricane season since the Great Depression. But for the people of Houston, the 1983 hurricane season was not quiet.

The first named storm of 1983, and the only Category 3 or stronger Atlantic hurricane that year, targeted southeast Texas and the growing Houston metropolitan area in mid-August. Hurricane Alicia swept across Galveston Bay with a 12-foot storm surge and swept through downtown Houston, becoming the costliest U.S. hurricane at the time. For Houston-Galveston, the least active hurricane season in over half a century was made senseless by one major hurricane.

As in 1983, the 1992 hurricane season was very inactive. And like 1992, only one Category 3 or stronger hurricane formed during the 6-month hurricane season. For the people of South Florida, this storm was a storm that forever changed their lives and the landscape of Dade County.

Damage from Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. Photo: National Hurricane Center.

An otherwise disappointing year, the Atlantic saw one of the most intense hurricanes on record, and at the time, the costliest hurricane ever to hit the United States.

Both Andrew and Alicia came here in the summer after the fading winter El Niño. But even in the midst of a nascent El Niño, as this year, the US has weathered its fair share of major hurricanes.

Billion Dollar Betsy — the only Category 3 or stronger hurricane of the 1965 hurricane season — blacked out homes across South Florida before becoming a once-in-a-generation storm for southeast Louisiana residents. Betsy was the costliest hurricane in the US at the time, and the first hurricane to exceed a billion dollars in damage, and it happened during a strong El Niño like that is possible this hurricane season.

The lesson of each of these below average hurricane seasons is that in any given year, especially in August, September and early October, powerful and destructive hurricanes can occur.

El Niño can often reduce the overall number of Atlantic hurricanes and has been shown to reduce the impact along the Florida peninsula and the US East Coast, but it’s not a map to get out of jail during hurricane season. We can still pay a heavy fine during El Niño years or other inactive seasons when the wrong hurricane hits.

Hurricane season is quiet until it hits, so always have a plan for yourself and your family ahead of time, regardless of seasonal forecasts.

The Atlantic will remain mostly calm this week. Don has become a borderline tropical storm over the open waters of the North Atlantic, where it is expected to remain until the weekend.

We will continue to monitor the tropical wave moving westward from Africa this week, but so far it does not pose an immediate threat to land.

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