Record-breaking hurricane season pummeled Alabama. But is the worst yet to come?

 al.com  12/01/2020 13:04:33   John Sharp |

The official end of the 2020 hurricane season capped a record-breaking year in which 30 named storms were produced, two of which caused billions of dollars in damages to Alabama and created a prolonged cleanup project that will last well into 2021.

And if you live along Alabamas coast, dont hold your breath that next year will be any better.

While the damage left in the paths of the two storms that struck the state is unmistakable, hurricanes Sally and Zeta were not classified as major - Category 3, or above, strength that produces sustained winds of 111 mph to 129 mph, according to one meteorology professor at the University of South Alabama.

Keith Blackwell, an associate professor emeritus of meteorology at the University of South Alabamas Department of Earth Sciences, said that coastal Alabama historically gets at least one major hurricane every 25 years. That last occurred, Blackwell said, in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan made landfall west of Gulf Shores with winds of around 120 mph.

That was 16 years ago.

Weve had storms affect us, said Blackwell. But of the big storms, Ivan was the last big one. It was the last major hurricane to affect us. Sally was not a major hurricane. It was a Category 2. In actuality, we are still waiting on that Category 3. Or 4. Or 5.

Incredible season

Hurricane Sallys September 16 landfall on Gulf Shores brought sustained winds of 105 mph as it arrived ashore. But the storms slow-moving trek created treacherous flooding conditions  30 inches of rain was reported in Orange Beach  and the storms damaging effects have been likened throughout Baldwin County to Hurricane Ivan.

A little more than a month later, Hurricane Zeta blasted through Mobile County on October 28 and packed powerful 90 mph winds as it blew northward into southwestern and central Alabama. All told, 19 counties suffered some sort of structural damage from the hurricane.

Hurricane Zeta was one of nine names in the Greek alphabet that were used for storms for the first time since 2005. The 9th name on the list, Iota, became the seasons only Category 5 storm on November 16, when its 160 mph winds blasted Nicaragua.

It was an incredible season, said Blackwell. Ive never seen anything like it in my lifetime. It was certainly the most active season we know of.

Blackwell and other meteorologists have often compared the 2020 season with 2005, which was followed by a calmer 2006 hurricane season that saw only 10 tropical storms and five named hurricanes.

But will 2021 be calming for hurricane weary coastal residents? Maybe not, Blackwell said, due to an early La Nina weather occurrence in the eastern Pacific Ocean. La Nina weather events brings cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures across the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator.

That developed this past summer and it usually does enhance Atlantic hurricane activity while squelching east Pacific hurricane activity, said Blackwell. If we have that la Nina persisting into the next hurricane season, it will be an enhancement for the Atlantic season. But the water temperatures in the north Atlantic this year were above normal almost everywhere. Thats unusual to see them that widespread over such a large area of the north Atlantic. And we dont know how those will be next year.

Storms in the Atlantic: How Staten Island will be affected

Five tropical cyclones churn in the Atlantic basin at on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. The storms, from left, are Hurricane Sally over the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Paulette over Bermuda, the remnants of Tropical Storm Rene, and Tropical Storms Teddy and Vicky. (NOAA via AP) AP

But looking back at some of the statistics from 2020 its difficult to envision a more active year:

-A record nine storms were named from May through July, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. By September 18  two days after Hurricane Sally  the 21-name Atlantic list was exhausted when Tropical Storm Wilfred formed.

-Hurricane Sally brought the highest observed water levels to Pensacola, Florida, since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to NOAA. A storm surge inundated Pensacola with six-feet of water, which is the third-highest level on record. The same storm, which made landfall in Gulf Shores, produced storm surges that inundated Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and the Fort Morgan peninsula.

-The 13 hurricanes (with winds of 74 mph or greater) produced in 2020, fell two hurricanes short of eclipsing the 15 that occurred in 2005.

-The six major hurricanes of Category 3 strength or greater (111 mph winds or greater) that formed in 2020, tied with a 2017 season that saw the devastation from major hurricanes like Irma, Harvey, and Maria. The calamitous 2005 hurricane season remains the standard for producing the most major hurricanes at seven: Katrina, Emily, Rita, Dennis, Wilma, Stan, and Beta.

-Despite the active Atlantic basin, the tropical weather activity in the Pacific was subdued. According to Blackwell, the Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) index for the eastern and western Pacific Ocean was below normal while the 2020 season marked the fifth consecutive year of higher-than-normal readings in the Atlantic basin.

Disaster headaches

The 2020 season also brought about plenty of challenges for emergency management officials who were on guard every time a storm developed in the Atlantic Ocean or Caribbean Sea before taking aim on the Gulf of Mexico.

Mike Evans, deputy director with the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency, said the 2020 season was the most active for him since 2005, but that COVID-19 pandemic posed more difficulties than past years. He said the pandemic loomed over planning for evacuations and whether to open storm shelters ahead of tropical weather.

Also compounding problems has been a slow slog of assessing storm damage from Hurricane Zeta. Some of those cities and counties affected by Zeta are waiting on a federal disaster declaration before proceeding with much-needed cleanup projects. The Alabama Emergency Management Agency submitted a preliminary disaster declaration on November 24 to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for public assistance in aiding in cleaning up of the piled up roadside debris in 19 counties. The request is pending before FEMA.

Hurricane Sally debris in Baldwin County

Household debris is piled up in communities like Magnolia Springs, Ala., as cleanup continues along roadways in Baldwin County more than four weeks after Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

Without a federal disaster declaration, the costs for cleaning up the debris piles is the sole responsibility for state, county, and local governments. With a federal disaster declaration, FEMA reimburses up to 75% of the costs.

Evans said in Mobile County alone, the damage assessment of around $15 million far eclipses the entire states $7.5 million threshold to be met before a public assistance declaration is made by FEMA. Evans said he believes the entire damage assessment of more than $30 million in damages.

I understand that if its close, we have to take a hard look at it, said Evans. But even if some (counties) misjudged their numbers, we should still meet that threshold.

He added, I certainly dont remember any previous storm that impact us taking this long to get a FEMA declaration.

Zetas storm damage has also created some hesitancy by cities and counties who were still dealing with cleaning up the debris left by Hurricane Sally.

Related content: Where is FEMA? Alabama waits on Hurricane Zeta relief

On Monday, the Mobile County Commission grilled its contractors, DRC Emergency Services, over the completion of Hurricane Sally cleanup. Commissioners said they had been receiving complaints from constituents about debris piles that had not been cleaned up since the mid-September storm.

Commissioners said they felt personally responsible for suggesting weeks ago that Hurricane Sally debris piles would be removed by Thanksgiving. However, debris is still piled up on roadsides around the county.

DRC representatives, Charles Kraft and Hunter Fuzzell, told commissioners that it was difficult to differentiate between the debris piles from Zeta and Sally. Hurricane Sally, within days, was declared a federal disaster that allowed most of the debris clean-up costs to be covered by the federal government.

Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said that the county will start removing Zeta-related debris soon.

We hoped we could wait for the declaration, she said. Thats just not happening, and we cant wait any longer.

Hurricane 2020 content:

The scariest adventure: Riding out Hurricane Sally

Reimagining Alabamas power grid after Hurricane Sally: Bury power lines, use solar, electric cars

Long lines for fuel, boats damaged: Coastal Alabama cleans up from Sally

Tree trunks, limbs everywhere: Hurricane Sallys debris will exceed Ivan by quite a bit

Crops, tourism pummeled: Hurricane Sally rattles coastal Alabamas economy

Well recover: Citronelle begins to dig out after Hurricane Zeta

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