Hurricane season officially ended yesterday, November 30. 2022 turned out to be an average season, not the above-normal season that was predicted. No storms affected Houston. But Category 4 Ian slammed the West Coast of Florida, killing at least 144 people.
Four U.S. Landfalls
The 2022 season saw four hurricane landfalls in the U.S.:
- Category 4 Ian with 150 mph maximum sustained winds, tied for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to landfall in the U.S.
- Ian made landfall a second time in Georgetown, SC as a Category 1.
- Category 1 Hurricane Nicole made landfall in north Hutchinson Island, Florida.
- Hurricane Fiona made landfall near Punta Tocon, Puerto Rico as a Cat 1. It dumped 27 inches on the island still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Fiona later intensified to a Cat 4 as it headed north.
Unusual Mid-Season Pause
According to the National Hurricane Center, this unique season was defined by a rare mid-season pause. Scientists suspect the causes were increased wind shear and suppressed atmospheric moisture high over the Atlantic Ocean.
After a quiet August, activity ramped up in September with seven named storms, including the two major hurricanes — Fiona and Ian. The season also included a rare late-season storm with Hurricane Nicole making landfall on November 10 along the east coast of Florida.
National Hurricane Center forecasts were aided by the experimental peak storm surge graphic, which allowed forecasters to more accurately communicate the severity of expected storm surge levels.
Another major first included the successful launch of the Altius 600 small uncrewed aircraft system from a Hurricane Hunter aircraft into the core of Ian hours before its landfall. It discovered 216 mph winds at an altitude of 2,150 feet.
Why Predictable Storms Still Kill So Many People
USA Today published an exceptionally well-researched and written article by Dinah Boyles Pulver to mark the end of hurricane season. The headline: “Ian was deadliest US storm this year, with at least 144 dead. Why are predictable storms still killing so many people?”
Three major take-aways from this thought-provoking article were:
- How older people die in disproportionate numbers from hurricanes
- The difficulty of evacuating densely populated areas.
- Public policy implications of the two points above.
Disproportionate Harm to Older People
Pulver’s article pointed out that, “The median age of Ian’s victims was 72 in Florida, a haven for retirees. More than 61% of the victims whose ages are known were 65 or over. Nearly half had medical conditions that contributed to their deaths.”
The USA Today analysis found that 60 people drowned and that preexisting medical conditions contributed to at least 30 deaths. At least 85 victims were 65 or older.
People Still Dying Despite Better Forecasts
Part of the problem relates to perceptions of risk. Older people are choosing to live in unsafe areas in ever increasing numbers.
The percentage of Florida’s population over 65 in coastal counties is predicted to jump from 16% to 37% by 2100. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of Florida residents aged 65 and older has increased from 17.6% to 21%. This complicates disaster planning and places extra burdens on first responders.
Pulver quotes Amber Silver, a disaster researcher at the University of Albany, as saying, “We have to look at policy failures. When you have vulnerable people living in vulnerable regions, in vulnerable infrastructure being exposed to these storms, you’re going to continue to have these shocking death counts – particularly among the most vulnerable. Until we address this challenge at a systemic, societal level, it’s not going to get better.”
Difficulty of Evacuation Points to Need for Better Floodplain and Building Regulations
Even with perfect forecasts, evacuation decisions remain difficult. Where do you go if you’re at the tip of a low-lying peninsula like Florida, hundreds of miles from higher ground.
Here in Houston, half of the 120 deaths during Rita in 2005 happened during evacuation attempts. Millions fled the Cat 5 storm bearing down on them with 180 mph winds – just weeks after Katrina destroyed New Orleans. Millions of panicked people created gridlock on the freeways.
Such examples create a powerful argument for focusing on better building and floodplain regulations. That battle is won or lost between storms.
But people seem to like affordable homes with water views and living with the risk right up to minute they can’t.
Regardless, Pulver points out that far fewer people die today than, say in the great Galveston hurricane of 1900, which killed an estimated 8000 people. So, we are making some progress.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/1/2022
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The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.