A refresher course on hurricanes along the Alabama Gulf coast
The city of Gulf Shores is holding its first hurricane expo since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Today’s free event is meant to educate local residents on how to prepare for what may be an above average hurricane season. Past storms left widespread damage along the Alabama coast and deaths as far north as Tuscaloosa
Warm water in the Atlantic and Gulf waters, and low wind shears. For Hurricane forecasters that can ingredients for disaster. The 2022 outlook includes predictions that more than twenty named storms could spring to life in the next six months. The question on the Alabama coast is what impact any of those storms could have on the region.
“So, it could be a very active season,” said Cody Lindsey, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Mobile. He says an active season doesn’t guarantee an area will be hit, but everyone needs to watch out.
“Now, does that necessarily mean that it will impact the Gulf Coast, not necessarily, but it does look like the factors are there,” said Lindsey. “So, we're watching it very closely for potentially another active season.”
In an average season, 14 named storms will form with seven of those becoming hurricanes. Three of those systems could became major storms with winds of over one hundred miles per hour. Lindsey says most of the major weather factors that influence hurricanes point to an active season.
“We're looking at the warmer than normal water temperature over the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, which is favorable for above normal tropical development,” Lindsey observed. “We're looking at less than normal wind shear, meaning not as much wind in the atmosphere that would help tear apart tropical systems. That's looking favorable for development. So all of those factors kind of point that it will be an above normal season this year.”
The bad news for residents along the Alabama coast is that these storms may not give a lot of warning. Lindsey says the bad conditions in the Gulf of Mexico could mean that a storm that approaches the Alabama coast could intensify just before hitting land.
“The Gulf of Mexico is much warmer than average water temperature-wise, so if any system were to develop in the Gulf or come up out of Central America into the Gulf, it would probably be favorable for development of tropical cyclones this season,” said Lindsey. “So, that's one of the things we're looking at that's a bit concerning, but just stay vigilant and keep a close eye on things as we go through the course of the season.”
Several recent hurricanes have strengthened more than expected before coming ashore in or near the Alabama Coast. Hurricane Sally grew from a tropical storm to a strong Category 2 hurricane in less than two days before hitting Gulf Shores.
“We had rapid intensification, like with Sally in 2020 and Michael in 2018,” said Lindsey. “Those both became very impressive hurricanes, especially Michael, and Sally as well, right before landfall, nearly a Category 3 system, so that's something to definitely keep an eye on as we go into the course of the season for rapid intensification. So keep a close eye on things this season.” Predictions of above average seasons have been common in the last few years. Baldwin County Emergency Management Director Zach Hood says they’ve already had one possible system to watch this year.
“The active predictions has not changed anything that we do here in terms of emergency preparedness in Baldwin County because this is now year No. 8 of an above average season,” said Hood. “The big discussion was would be have a tropical season in the Gulf prior to the start of hurricane season? Fortunately that was not the case. We were able to get through a beautiful Memorial Day weekend.”
After recent busy seasons, coastal officials are updating emergency plans. And those concerns now extend inland. Hood says evacuation zones could be extended on rivers that have flooded after heavy tropical rains.
“We are working with the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA on revising the hurricane evacuation study,” said Hood. “And right now, what we're trying to navigate is should the primary and tertiary waterways in four of Baldwin County's major systems be included as a Zone 1 evacuation versus a Zone 2 or a Zone 3 depending on their geographical location.”
Hood says that means people living along local rivers, such as Fish, Perdido, Magnolia and Styx, could be ordered to leave sooner if flooding threatens.
“We want to be very clear about that. We saw during Hurricane Sally the Perdido River rise above anything that has ever been. All of our major river systems' historical numbers in terms of flooding and so we want to be able to in the easiest way possible that is the most, that can be the most understandable to anyone to know that when there's a Zone 1 evacuation, whether it's voluntary or mandatory that individuals along those waterways need to be aware and notified that we could see not only surge but rainfall to create problems in those areas. So, we're looking at changing Zone 1 to include those waterways,” said Hood.
Coastal officials also hope to improve communications during hurricanes and other emergencies. Baldwin County is working on an interactive system that will allow cities and other agencies to follow developments as hurricanes approach.
“In years past, we've always had to just assign one of our police officers to the Baldwin EMA center so that we'd actually have a way of communicating with them having that line of communication there,” said Brandon Franklin, Gulf Shores’ emergency management director.
“This should take the place of that, so we'll be able to track everything a lot better, but also free up some resources here,” said Franklin.
Preparing for a coastal hurricane hit can include what road to take to evacuate if the threat worsens. Franklin says Gulf Shores is also working to help residents and visitors prepare for the storm season. “One of the other things we're doing is actually having a hurricane expo here in the city on June 23 for all of our residents to attend,” said Franklin.” So, we've got several different vendors coming to it. We haven't been able to do it in several years.”
COVID precautions were one reason Gulf Shores hasn’t been able to have a public meeting on storm preparations since before Hurricane Sally in 2020. Since then, the population has gone up meaning more people to evacuate and many new residents who have never experienced a hurricane.
“Not having a hurricane expo previous to Sally, but also in the past two years, just knowing the number of people who have moved into our area having something for them to attend and just some information to put out to them and the different services that are offered by not just the city but other businesses and vendors will be there to assist during this time. Hopefully, it'll be beneficial for everyone here,” said Franklin.
He says Gulf Shores and Orange Beach also plan to build up local beaches to protect the coastline from hurricane impacts. But that project won’t start until after the current season.
“We're supposed to start that process in the fall of this year and be completed by spring of 2023 and that's for the entire Alabama beachfront from Gulf Shores to Orange Beach. I wouldn't say entire because Fort Morgan's not a part of that, but I would definitely just emphasize the importance of the dune system being the first line of defense,” said Franklin.
Preparation is a key defense no matter how busy a season is predicted. The 1992 season was considered less active than usual. The season’s first storm didn’t form until late August. But that storm was Hurricane Andrew, which slammed into south Florida. I was one of the most devastating hurricanes in American history. Again, Cody Lindsey.
“You know, it only takes one, no matter what, even if it's an active season or not, it only takes one to make it a bad season, so that's why hurricane preparedness is key. We're asking folks to just make sure they have their hurricane preparedness supplies and kits ready to go this season. Know what you would do in case you're under a tropical storm or a hurricane warning or an evacuation zone. Familiarize yourself with all that and be prepared should the need arise this season,” he said.