The 2017 Hurricane Season Begins: Here Are 3 Alarming Things I’m Watching

June 1, 2017 | 1:38 pm
Damage from Hurricane Sandy in Mantoloking, New Jersey in 2012.
Astrid Caldas
Senior Climate Scientist

There are so many things happening in the world and in the US that we have a lot to digest. However, one of the things that should be on everyone’s radar – whether you live on the coast or not – is the 2017 hurricane season, which starts June 1st. Why? Read on.

Number 1: The Busy 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Forecast

Image: NOAA

Hurricane season starts on June 3, and as they do every year, the National Hurricane Center, part of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) released their forecast, which for this year predicts “45 percent chance of an above-normal season, a 35 percent chance of a near-normal season, and only a 20 percent chance of a below-normal season”, with 70% likelihood of 11 to 17 named storms, 2-4 of which could become major hurricanes.

If last year was any indication, we could see a very active season again – 2016 was the most active since 2012, and recent research suggests that hurricanes in the North Atlantic region have been intensifying over the past 40 years: since the mid-1970s, the number of hurricanes that reach Categories 4 and 5 in strength has roughly doubled.

More moisture in a warmer air increases the precipitation associated with hurricanes, and a warmer ocean fuels hurricane speed. Put that together with the higher sea levels that have been observed and predicted throughout the East and Gulf coasts, potentially impacting 24 million people, and you have a recipe for disaster: higher and deeper storm surge, and thus more powerful and destructive.

If nothing else, we should learn from the past and be prepared, but for that we need both the relevant information and the resources to prepare. Unfortunately, both may be lacking.

Number 2: Proposed budget cuts to FEMA, NOAA, and NASA.

The agencies tasked with minding hurricanes and our response to them face steep budget cuts. It is a no-brainer: to do their work properly, these agencies need resources – both financial and human. By proposing cuts to programs related to weather forecasting and climate monitoring at NASA and NOAA, the administration is basically playing with fire.

The ability to forecast and predict extreme events such as hurricanes accurately is essential to the protection of countless people and their property. But the mission and budget of both NOAA and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) are under attack by the administration, as several programs essential to weather forecasting and climate monitoring have been targeted for budget cuts.

The NOAA hurricane prediction page has a statement by Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator: “NOAA’s broad range of expertise and resources support the nation with strong science and service before, during and after each storm to protect lives and property and enhance the national economy as we continue building a Weather-Ready Nation.” Just this year, NOAA’s National Hurricane Center introduced new products and services to improve preparedness and alerts. One can’t help but wonder how the science and service will continue at NOAA if the attacks on science continue, and the budget cuts go through. NOAA needs all the talent and resources to continue its top-notch work.

As mentioned above, in addition to the latest science one also needs resources to prepare. FEMA has always been linked to its mission in recovery when disaster strikes, but helping prepare communities for the next disaster is one of their most important roles. FEMA has several programs aimed at the pre-disaster preparation that are being targeted by budget cuts: the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grants Program, whose goal is “to reduce overall risk to the population and structures from future hazard events, while also reducing reliance on Federal funding in future disasters”, is one program that would save the federal government millions in the long run, since studies show that $1 spent in preparation and mitigation saves $4 in disaster costs. Other programs under attack include the flood hazard mapping and risk analysis program, which is essential to communicating risk to communities so that they can take action to reduce their risk.

Photo: FEMA

It is not rocket science: fewer resources will not help the US population when the next disaster strikes. The administrators from FEMA, NOAA, and NASA should have the vision and fight for the resources to enable their agencies to do their job. Which brings me to my last point…

Number 3: The lack of appointed leadership at these key agencies

The Trump administration has yet to nominate a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) administrator, a NOAA administrator, and a NASA administrator. And that is bad. We need strong leadership to deal with the increasingly frequent natural disasters and extreme events that are following in the footsteps of climate change.

In addition, operating through the uncertainties stemming from proposed budget cuts will be challenging, and only strong leadership can ensure these agencies’ missions are upheld and fulfilled. This is particularly true for FEMA, who goes on the ground and on which we rely heavily when disaster strikes.

Rumors of frontrunners have been in the news (Brock Long for FEMA, Barry Myers for NOAA, no obvious name for NASA), but so far these agencies have been under acting administrators. Delayed nominations serve nobody, and only creates more hurdles to an already hard job.

One avoidable bad outcome

The active hurricane forecast, the lack of resources, and the lack of leadership make for an easily avoidable trifecta. We have what the science tells us, now we just need the administration to recognize the need for the resources and leadership. Each of these pieces cannot work without the other if we are to be prepared for the next disaster.

Let’s just hope it’s not an active early season, and that all the pieces are in place when the winds start spinning in the Atlantic. The costs of disasters are climbing but with science, good vision, leadership and resources we can prepare for the worst and be a more resilient nation