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Sparks

We’re Worrying About Hurricanes Wrong

Don’t look at the number of forecasted storms and panic. But don’t get complacent, either.

Hurricane aftermath.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When is an announcement less an announcement than a confirmation?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2024 hurricane season outlook, issued Thursday morning, might be one such case. For the past several weeks, hurricane agencies around the country have been warning of an extremely active, potentially historic season due to a confluence of factors including the record-warm water in the Atlantic Main Development Region and the likely start of a La Niña, which will make the wind conditions more favorable to Atlantic storm formation. With the Atlantic Hurricane Season set to start a week from Saturday, on June 1, NOAA has at last issued its own warning: There is an 85% chance of an above-average season, with eight to 13 hurricanes and four to seven of those expected to be “major” Category 3 or greater storms.

With an estimate of up to 25 total named storms for the whole season, NOAA’s outlook marks the greatest number of named storms ever predicted by the agency at this point in May. (For those also invested in hurricane nomenclature, the 22nd storm of the season would get its name from a new, supplemental list that starts over with “Adria”). Still, it’s not exactly newsat this point that we’re in for a whopper of a season. And hurricane experts will be the first to tell you that a “busy” year doesn’t mean anything in terms of how you should think about preparedness: All it takes is one nearby storm to make it a “busy” year for you. By the same token, it’s theoretically possible (albeit highly unlikely) for there to be 25 named storms this year, none of which make landfall.

More interesting, then, is how the government is talking about these storms with the public. Yes, it is still putting a number on how many “major” storms there could be with sustained winds of 111 miles per hour or more — a headline-making tendency that irritates many of the hurricane experts I spoke with earlier this spring. However, Ken Graham, the director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, also stressed the limited utility of such a claim on Thursday. “The Saffir-Simpson scale measures the wind, but it’s actually the other impacts — it’s the water” that people should be worried about, he said.

While in the popular imagination hurricanes are coastal phenomena that kill people with high winds and waves, 90% of hurricane fatalities result from water, and most of those (57%) are freshwater deaths from heavy rainfall — sometimes hundreds of miles inland. Graham pointed to 2018’s Hurricane Florence as an example, when people drowned in parts of the Carolinas far from the ocean after rivers flooded and jumped their banks. Similarly, it is not always traditional “hurricane areas” like Florida or Texas where these storms have effects: The remnants of Hurricane Ida killed 13 people in New York City in 2021 when the storm broke the city’s record for single-hour rainfall. (Water damage and flooding are also part of what drives the insurance crisis in the Southeast, although NOAA and other agencies’ worrisome predictions for this year aren’t directly linked to 2024 premiums.)

To account for nontraditional ways of thinking about hurricane impacts, NOAA is launching an experimental “forecast cone” this year to warn of effects outside a hurricane’s immediate path. But messaging and graphics can only go so far, and time is of the essence. “Every Category 5 storm that made landfall in the United States in the last 100 years was a tropical storm or less three days prior,” Graham said. “The big ones are fast.” And they certainly don’t care about our timelines, our May outlooks, or how our cones of uncertainty appear on TV.

I’m sympathetic to NOAA’s messaging bind, though. Outlooks like the one issued Thursday make eye-catching headlines, which in turn helps to raise awareness that the time to prepare is now. (No, seriously.) But given the rapid intensification of hurricanes and those warm Atlantic waters that act like Mario mega mushrooms for cyclones, it’s perhaps more useful to think of the season as the main event rather than weigh the odds of whether one of the year’s 20-or-so-named storms will break in your specific direction.

Still. That doesn’t change the fact that 25 is a big number for the upper end of predicted Atlantic storms and that 2024 is tracking to be a historic year. “Everything has to come together to get a forecast like this,” Graham said.

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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