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Hurricane season 2018 starts today: Predictions are vague, so it's time to get ready


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Subtropical Storm Alberto formed a week before the official start of hurricane season and made landfall in the Florida Panhandle. Does Alberto mean it'll be a busy season for the Gulf? (NOAA)





The one thing most people really want to know about hurricane season is also the one thing most experts really don't want them to ask.


How busy is it going to be?


Today, June 1, is the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. It typically peaks in August and September, and it will officially end on Nov. 30.


But the season got started early for the Gulf of Mexico.


Parts of the state are still cleaning up from Subtropical Storm Alberto, which made landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Memorial Day with 45 mph winds and flooded areas far inland in Alabama.


Alberto formed exactly one week before the official start of hurricane season.


Could that foreshadow what the rest of the summer may bring?


"An early-season storm such as Alberto is not an indication of an active season," said Jason Beaman, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Mobile.


"From 1950-2017, there have been 14 years when a storm developed in May. About half of those years were above normal and half below normal." 


NOAA released its Atlantic hurricane season outlook in May. It is forecasting a near to above-average season, with 10-16 named storms, five to nine hurricanes and one to four major hurricanes (which are Category 3 or stronger storms).


A typical season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.


Hurricane Season 2018 outlook.jpg(NOAA) 

Forecasters can take cues from the atmosphere to try and predict how busy the season will be, but they can't predict how many storms will make landfall -- or where.


"It's interesting, because that question comes up every time, and at first I feel bad because I kind of dodge it -- but I do tell the truth," said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center.


"Here's the reality -- and this is really important -- is the fact that you look at the hurricane seasons over the years ... you can't compare one season to another. In 2005 we ran out of names. In 2010 we almost ran out of names. We're not talking about 2010 much because there weren't many landfalls.


"There could be one storm on Earth this season, but if it hits Alabama it's a busy season."


The seasonal forecast is important, but there's a lot it can't predict.


"Preparedness doesn't change," Graham said. "So you've got to be as prepared as if we're going to get hit."


That's the message they want you to get above all else: Get ready.


But who wants to do that now?

But the truth is many people don't do that. It can be a hassle to have to go out and buy all the supplies, to check up on insurance, to come up with a plan in case the worst happens.


It may be an inconvenience now, but trying to do it with a powerful hurricane bearing down on you will be much, much worse.


NHC Director Ken Graham.jpgKenneth Graham is the director of the National Hurricane Center, but he also ran the National Weather Service office in Birmingham at one time. (NHC) 

"The No. 1 cause of fatalities indirectly from hurricanes is cardiac arrest," Graham said.


"So it's stress ... It's 'I don't have a plan,' 'I don't know where I'm going to go'. It's also the fact that if you're in hurricane force winds, even tropical storm force winds, and you start to have health issues, it's tough for the first responders to get there -- if you're even going to get help. That's why the planning is so important."


The National Hurricane Center is doing its best to make sure people have plenty of time to prepare.


One of the newest products in the arsenal has a long title -- potential tropical cyclone advisory -- which forecasters started using last year.


Potential tropical cyclone advisories are issued when a storm hasn't yet developed into a depression or tropical storm but is close to land and could make a big impact.


"I think this is going to be particularly good for the Gulf Coast because in the past we couldn't give people a lot of lead time if something was forming close to home," said John Cangialosi, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.


"One of those storms, about a decade ago, Humberto, hit Texas and showcased the need for that because we didn't have a depression yet. It was close, but then 18 hours later it was a hurricane. It didn't give people a lot of warning.


"That won't happen today," he said. "Today we will give you plenty of warning ... So we changed it from more science to more service."


The hurricane center ended up using the potential cyclone advisories seven times last season. "And six of those went on to become a tropical storm or hurricane," said Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center. "And it gave those emergency managers and the public about an extra day of lead time."


Focusing on the water

What will change this season? Graham said there will be an added emphasis on water -- storm surge and inland rain -- which came into focus after the devastating flooding of Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017.


"You look at the fatalities with tropical systems ... half of them are storm surge but another 25 percent is inland rain. We have to keep a continuous conversation about inland rain," he said.


And when he says inland, he means far inland. For example, the Hurricane Awareness Tour's Alabama stop this year was not on the coast, but in Montgomery.


"We've seen it with Harvey with the inland rains, we've seen it before," Graham said. "Even in Montgomery, you may not get the impacts of a direct hit but you could get the rain. You take Harvey's rain and put that over Montgomery that's a significant, significant disaster."


Graham said that 90 percent of storm deaths are related to water. "But if you do surveys, or I'll go and give a talk and ask people what they fear the most, it's the wind," he said.


"I think we see it, we see things shaking, we feel it; we just don't think about the water. And it's something that I'm going to really make a big priority to have more conversations about the dangers of water. We have to have the conversation."


But really, the question has to be asked: Are there any clues out there about how this season could shape up?


"We have a seasonal team even within NOAA, and here are the things they look for: What are the water temperatures like? Are they above average or below average? Is there an El Nino signal or a La Nina ... is there a lot of high pressure in certain areas or lower pressure in other areas?" Cangialosi said.


"A lot of things are pretty neutral this year. In truth, like we said before, nobody knows. They don't know for sure what it's going to be like, and more importantly, they have no idea where they're going."


And the saying might sound cliched at this point, but it only takes one storm to make a big impact.


"Alberto will hopefully serve as a reminder for folks to be prepared ahead of time," Beaman said. "This reduces a lot of stress and anxiety down the road when the next hurricane does come our way."


There's no way to predict if a hurricane will threaten your area this year.


"There's not a forecast for landfall," Graham said. "Science is nowhere close to coming up with if there's going to be a landfall or not. And that's why it's not really important to concentrate on it.


"If you plan as if you're going to be hit, you're prepared."


2018 Hurricane names 1.jpg(NOAA)
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