(TNS) - The 2017 hurricane season, which ends Thursday, will go down as one of the most active and destructive of all time. There were 17 named storms, six of them major, and significant damage was registered in the Leeward Islands, the Caribbean and the United States.
After 12 years of calm, the Sunshine State received its first direct hit since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Hurricane Irma blasted through the Florida Keys, roared ashore near Naples, then jetted up the spine of the state, causing at least $6 billion in property damage and another $2.5 billion in agriculture losses.
Locally, Irma caused thousands of trees to topple onto roads, homes and power lines. Most homes and businesses lost power. Residents had to battle gasoline lines and find a way to get to work.
Irma was the most disruptive hurricane to make landfall in recent memory, mainly because the entire peninsula suffered damage. In Alachua and Marion counties, Irma was more disruptive than the double whammy of Hurricane Frances and Hurricane Jeanne in 2004.
After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, building codes were overhauled statewide. Irma's legacy will include a re-examination of state policies and procedures concerning fuel supply, evacuation routes and nursing home safety.
Though the state had plans to ensure that ample fuel supplies were available before and after Irma, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas just weeks before and that led to a fuel shortage in Florida. Now, lawmakers will consider establishing a fuel reserve.
Since Irma struck on Sept. 10, Gov. Rick Scott has led the charge to better protect residents:
• Scott issued an order that requires the state's 3,500 assisted living facilities (ALFs) and 700 nursing homes to have generators large enough to operate cooling systems, and to keep enough fuel on hand to operate these generators for four days.
The order was issued after multiple Broward County nursing home patients died after Irma-related power outages at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. The deaths are still under investigation. Scott believes that a properly functioning air cooling system would have saved lives.
• After residents were ordered to flee South Florida as Irma approached, a bottleneck developed on the Florida Turnpike where it meets Interstate 75 in Wildwood. To be better prepared in the future, Scott has asked the state Department of Transportation to find ways to better expedite evacuations.
The hurricane season began June 1. In all, there were 17 named storms. That includes 10 hurricanes, six of which were major (Category 3 or worse.)
Harvey slammed Texas on Aug. 26, triggering unprecedented flooding and causing about $200 billion in damage, nearly double the damage caused by Katrina in 2005. After Irma crushed several Caribbean islands and then the United States mainland, Hurricane Maria plowed across Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, destroying the U.S. territory.
2017 was the seventh most active hurricane season on record and the most destructive, according to records dating back 166 years. Some experts believe this year was just the beginning of an active hurricane period that could last at least five more years.
Local lessons learned
Emergency management directors John Shaw of Alachua County and Preston Bowlin of Marion County were both new on the job this year. Both are proud of how well their staffs prepared and implemented disaster plans during Irma. After all, it had been 13 years since Frances and Jeanne had affected their areas.
Many veteran emergency workers from numerous agencies — those who worked during Frances and Jeanne in 2004 — have since retired or moved on to other services. There was a learning curve, but both men survived.
For the most part, emergency officials had roads and other services up and running within a few days of Irma clearing out. Power companies had restored most of the power within a week. And now, for the exception of some debris piles still dotting roads, Irma is a distant memory.
In Alachua County, the biggest lesson learned was the importance of communication through AlertAlachua, the county's new emergency app. Shaw hopes to add more subscribers by June. He said the app will make a difference in getting important information out to residents.
"I think having (hurricanes) Hermine and Matthew last year helped us greatly," Shaw said.
In Marion County, the biggest lesson was to create a better list of special-needs residents and to provide more training on the WebEOC computer software.
"Before (Irma), we only had 560 special-needs residents who were registered with us," Bowlin said. "During the three days before Irma, that number climbed to 1,000."
Bowlin said he must make sure the list is current and that special needs residents are registering. The surge of special needs patients forced the School District to move its special needs shelter.
Bowlin has ordered more training for people from all agencies who will be called to work at Marion's emergency operations center during a storm. Bowlin said many people were unable to operate the WebEOC software.
Hyperactive hurricane season
Scientists created a formula about two decades ago that rates the intensity of a named storm. This formula uses an approximation of the wind energy used by a tropical system and is calculated every six hours during its lifetime.
The formula is called Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE). The highest ACE value for a single storm was Hurricane Ivan (70.4) in 2004, followed by Irma (66.7) this year, Isabel (63.3) in 2003, Donna (57.6) in 1960 and Hurricane Carrie (55.8) in 1957.
A storm does not have to make landfall to get its intensity rating. The system is used to determine how intense a storm was during its history. Hurricane Matthew (50.9) in 2016 was ranked 10th and Hurricane Maria (44.6) this year was ranked 17th on the list of individual storms. There have been roughly 1,800 cyclones recorded since 1851.
The ACE for an entire season is the sum of all the named storms combined. Seasons with ACE totals of 153 or more are considered hyperactive. A normal hurricane season has an ACE of 86-135. A range of 136-152 is considered above normal. A value of 85 or less is considered below normal.
The 2017 season produced the seventh highest ACE total, dating back 166 years. With an ACE total of 223.12, this season was about double the intensity of the normal season median of 110.5.
"It was definitely one of the most active hurricane seasons on record," said Al Sandrik, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Jacksonville and one of the leading hurricane historians in the United States.
Sandrik said the ACE value does not relate to damage done. The most active hurricane season on record was 1933 (ACE value: 258.57.) There have been only nine seasons with ACE values of more than 200. The other eight: 2005 (250.13); 1897 (231.15); 1926 (229.56); 1995 (227.103); 2004 (226.88); 2017 (223.12); 1950 (211.283) and 1961 (205.40). Sandrik said his research into hurricanes prior to 1851 shows that the 1780, 1813 and 1837 hurricane seasons were also hyperactive seasons.
Though it appears that 2017 hurricane season has become the costliest on record ($200+ billion), Sandrik said there is no way to truly compare. Though it is possible to convert past damages to 2017 dollars, Sandrik said the figures are still not accurate.
For instance, there were no expensive HD televisions, WiFi routers and other devices in 1998. When a home gets leveled today, there are many more expensive items. In 1893, few people had cars like they do today. That means it is difficult to accurately compare cost of hurricanes.
Dennis Feltgen, a National Hurricane Center spokesman, said 2017 got everyone's attention. The biggest question he is asked: Will 2018 be another destructive year?
His reply: "You have six months to get ready. Use your time wisely."
How did experts fare?
Nearly every weather agency predicted a normal hurricane season, stating that an emerging El Nino would help create upper-level wind shear that would hinder hurricane development.
Instead, La Nina emerged over the summer and eliminated the wind shear. Coupled with warmer Atlantic waters, it was the perfect setting for a hyperactive hurricane season.
Colorado State researchers, who have been predicting hurricane activity for the past 34 years, predicted 11 or 12 named storms, four to six hurricanes, and two major hurricanes. Other major agencies offered similar forecasts.
Only Global Weather Oscillations Inc. (GWO), an Ocala-based hurricane season prediction company, had an accurate reading. GWO predicted 17 named storms, nine hurricanes, and five major hurricanes.
"We also predicted six landfalls and there were six," said David Dilley, who owns and operates GWO.
Dilley developed a computer model concept, which he touts as a one-of-a-kind long-range forecasting tool. It relies on weather cycles. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration uses several short-term weather cycle-type oscillation models — as well as La Nina or El Nino influences — to forecast six months to a year into the future. NOAA does not use weather cycle data to predict hurricanes four years out.
Dilley, a former NOAA meteorologist who worked in Boston for two decades, says his models can predict hurricane activity years ahead. He sells his zone forecasts to clients, such as insurance agencies.
Dilley projects the activity in 11 Atlantic and Gulf Coast zones. He has found that each zone has varying weather cycles — up to about 50 years each. And each zone's cycle has its own smaller weather cycle. Once all of the cycles within cycles are discovered, a pattern for each zone emerges.
After analyzing the data, Dilley's computer program then projects hurricane and tropical storm probabilities. In 2017, Dilley, 72, had the only perfect prediction.
"The difference is our Climate Pulse Technology, which I am patenting," he said.
Dilley said his models show that hyperactive hurricane activity will continue, or even worsen, for the next five years or so. He said 2018 is poised to be the strongest hurricane season in 70 years.
"That could continue for the next five, six, seven years," Dilley said. Florida will be under the gun every year.
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