The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts 2020 will be an above-average hurricane season, with six to 10 hurricanes. NOAA expects three to six to be Category 3 or higher, with sustained wind speeds above 110 miles per hour.
This hurricane season is coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. and continues to complicate basic travel and commerce across the country. Residents and emergency managers in hurricane-prone areas are grappling with concerns that evacuations, especially to public shelters, might increase coronavirus infections.
If the forecast proves correct, it will be the fifth year in a row with an above-average number of hurricanes — the most consecutive years of above-average hurricane activity ever recorded.
“Now is the time to make sure you’re getting prepared for this season,” says Gerry Bell, NOAA’S lead hurricane forecaster.
Bell warns residents of hurricane-prone areas not to be overly focused on hurricane category, which is based only on wind speed. “Don’t get locked into just the ultimate hurricane strength,” he says.
Climate change is driving more extreme rain and causing sea levels to rise, which means storms of all sizes are more damaging than they used to be. “Higher sea levels mean more storm inundation as a storm is approaching,” says Bell. “The problem with that is our coastlines have built up tremendously over the last decades, so there [are] potentially millions more people in harm’s way every time a hurricane threatens [to make landfall].”
The conditions in the part of the Atlantic Ocean where hurricanes generally form fluctuate on a multi-decade timeline, with some periods more conducive to hurricane formation than others. The Atlantic has been relatively friendly to hurricanes since 1995, and recent above-average activity is largely due to that trend, which is separate from man-made climate change.
However, at the global level, climate change caused by humans is driving more intense hurricanes on average, according to a NOAA study published this week. And recent storms such as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria have dumped more rain than they would have without climate change, scientists say.
On Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency published its 2020 pandemic guide for hurricane preparedness, which urges state and local governments to rethink when they give evacuation orders ahead of hurricanes, and where they direct residents to go. FEMA warns that housing large groups of people in shelters could lead to increased transmission of the coronavirus.
On Thursday, FEMA Acting Deputy Administrator for Resilience Carlos Castillo said that the agency wants people to change what they bring with them if they evacuate from a hurricane.
“Be prepared to take cleaning items with you like soap, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes or general household cleaning supplies to disinfect surfaces you may touch regularly,” he says.
FEMA also recommends that people prioritize staying with family or friends outside evacuation zones rather than going to shelters, in order to limit coronavirus spread. Earlier this month the Red Cross announced it was working on arrangements with hotels in disaster-prone areas, so that people who are displaced can stay out of group shelters as much as possible.