Hurricanes 101: Facts and Common Questions Answered as the 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season Begins
TUESDAY JUNE 1, 2021 AS OF 5:00 PM EST
Today officially marks the start of the 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season which will span from today, June 1 until November 30, 2021. Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted another above average hurricane season. The first tropical storm of 2021 developed in the Pacific in early May; then, in the Atlantic, Subtropical Storm Ana, which occurred in mid-May, became the first named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane Season.
While the Hagerty Situational Status (Sit Stat) team typically provides updates on active disaster events, today we are providing a few hurricane season facts; answering some commonly asked questions about how hurricanes are named, common risks, and misconceptions; as well as how you and your community can prepare for the risks you may face throughout the season.
News & Features: NOAA
HOW HURRICANES ARE NAMED
In 1953, the United States (US) began giving hurricanes and tropical storms short, easily remembered names to streamline communication and avoid confusion. This replaced the more cumbersome practice of listing storms by the year and order of occurrence, which created challenges when storms struck concurrently. Through the 1950’s and 1960’s, hurricanes took traditionally female names; however, in 1978 both male and female names were used for Pacific storms, and the Atlantic basin adopted the same naming convention one year later, in 1979.
Today, hurricanes are named by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized agency within the United Nations (UN) dedicated to monitoring Earth’s atmosphere and climate. This ensures that there is continuity across regions impacted by tropical storms, especially as the international community rallies to respond to disasters. Each year, the WMO compiles a list of 21 names for named storms that hurricane season.
Additionally, storms receive names in alphabetical order of when they first developed. Tropical systems are given names when they reach tropical storm status with their wind speeds reaching 39 miles per hour or more. Subsequently, a tropical storm becomes a hurricane when wind speeds exceed 74 miles per hour. On average, a hurricane season will have 14 named storms, half of which are designated hurricanes and a smaller percentage labeled major hurricanes.
How does WMO determine which names make the cut?
For Atlantic hurricanes, six lists, with 21 names each, are rotated annually to recycle short, memorable names. If a storm is especially costly or deadly, the name joins the list of Retired Atlantic Names; afterwards a new name is chosen to replace the retired one, and the list returns in six years.
Retired Atlantic Hurricanes by Year: National Hurricane Center
In the unlikely event that there are more than 21 named tropical cyclones, a supplemental list can provide storm names. Previously, the Greek alphabet was used to name storms when the annual list was exhausted; however, earlier this year, the WMO announced that the Greek alphabet would no longer be used as it distracted from the communication of storm hazards and warnings during the record-breaking 2020 hurricane season which resulted in 30 named storms.
RISKS AND MISCONCEPTIONS
What is the difference between a Tropical Storm, Cyclone, and Hurricane?
A tropical cyclone is a rotating, organized system of clouds and thunderstorms that originates over tropical or subtropical waters and has a closed low-level circulation. Tropical storms and hurricanes are, in fact, tropical cyclones with varied levels of severity. According to the NOAA National Hurricane Center (NHC), ‘Tropical depressions’ are classified as cyclones with maximum sustained wind speeds of 38 miles per hour (mph) or less. A ‘tropical storm’ is a tropical cyclone with maximum sustained wind speeds of 39 to 72 mph. To reach ‘hurricane’ status, a tropical cyclone must have maximum sustained wind speeds of 74 mph or higher. Hurricanes are further classified using the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale categorizes hurricanes into categories (Cat) 1 through 5 based on a hurricane’s sustained wind speed. A Cat 1 hurricane has winds from 74 to 95 mph. A Cat 2 hurricane has winds from 96 to 110 mph. A Cat 3 hurricane has winds from 111 to 129 mph and can cause devastating damage. A Cat 4 Hurricane has winds from 130 to 156 mph and a Cat 5 hurricane has winds from 157 mph or higher. Hurricanes reaching Cat 3 to 5 status are classified as major hurricanes that can cause catastrophic damage.
The term used to describe a tropical cyclone varies by the storm’s location. In the western North Pacific hurricanes are referred to as ‘typhoons’, whereas in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific Ocean they are called ‘tropical cyclones’ or just ‘cyclones’. It is important to understand the terms used when referring to these storms as different levels of storms bring different risks and hazards.
What are the additional hazards that occur during a Hurricane?
There are four primary hazards associated with hurricanes and tropical storms: extreme winds, storm surge, inland flooding, and tornadoes.
- High winds associated with hurricanes and tropical storms can be extremely dangerous. A common misconception is that dangerous winds only result from a hurricane; however, winds from tropical storms still pose a risk to life and property. High winds also bring about the possibility of projectiles like tree limbs or building materials.
- Storm surge is an abnormal rise in seawater level caused only by a storm. Storm surge, along with inland flooding, account for the majority of deaths during hurricanes. Another common misconception is that water is only dangerous if it is deep. However, six inches of fast moving water can sweep you off your feet, and one foot of water is enough to carry away a car. Water hazards can also continue after the hurricane or tropical storm has passed. Dangerous debris, power lines, animals, and other hazards can possibly be found in flood water post storm.
- Inland flooding is generally caused by heavy rainfall from hurricanes, tropical storms, or even tropical depressions. It can occur whenever the volume of water on land overcomes the capacity of drainage systems or causes bodies of water, like rivers, to overflow. This means that even areas not on the coast can be affected by inland flooding from these types of storms. Slow moving storms with lower wind speeds can also increase the chances of flooding from the volume of rain dropped on one area.
- Tornadoes can also accompany hurricanes or tropical storms. While these tornadoes are generally weak and short-lived, they can still pose a threat.
Anyone living in a hurricane prone area, or in an inland area that may be affected by flooding from hurricanes, should pay close attention to alerts and announcements from local authorities, including hurricane watches and warnings.
What is the difference between a watch and a warning?
A Hurricane Watch means that hurricane force winds are possible within a specific area and is issued 48 hours in advance of the anticipated storm. A Hurricane Warning is issued 36 hours in advance and means that hurricane force winds (74 mph or higher) are expected within the specified area. Additional watches or warnings like a Storm Surge Watch/Warning may also be announced. A Hurricane Warning can also remain in effect after the winds have dropped below hurricane force due to other hazards, like flooding or dangerous debris. It is vital to know your risk and how to prepare if a Hurricane Watch or Warning is announced for your area.
Hurricane Preparedness: Ready.gov
What are steps you can take now to protect your family and home?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) encourages individuals to prepare before a tropical storm or hurricane. After determining the risks of severe weather in your community, it is critical to:
- Collaborate with your family and household to ensure everyone knows how to reliably receive emergency alerts;
- Know where to seek shelter inside and outside of the home (dependent on the guidance);
- Know how to find the safest evacuation routes;
- Know how everyone will maintain communication during the crisis; and
- Create an emergency kit that is fully stocked.
Emergency plans should be personalized based upon the unique composition of your family and household, considering the needs of young children, older adults, and pets, dietary and medical requirements, and individuals living with disabilities. Additional preparedness opportunities could include completing FEMA’s Family Emergency Communication Plan or using this resource as a guide to document important contact information that can be shared with your family and household for safe keeping. Once your plan is set, periodically review and rehearse the plan so that everyone involved can become familiar with their responsibilities and equipped with the confidence to make quick decisions during a real emergency. FEMA suggests several precautionary steps you can take to protect your home and personal property from damage by high winds and floods, including reviewing your flood insurance coverage.
How can you prepare for Hurricane Season during the Pandemic?
In preparation for this upcoming hurricane season in particular, it is important to review your emergency plan in concurrence with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidance during COVID-19. Individuals should be prepared and not scared by planning in advance for extreme weather conditions.
We hope that we could provide you with some new information on hurricanes and tropical storms as you and your community prepare for the Atlantic Hurricane Season. The Hagerty Blog Team will continue providing information and updates on potential and occurring storms.
STAY UPDATED AND LEARN MORE HERE:
- Remember, Ready.gov provides information on how to prepare for a storm and how to keep you and your family safe.
- Understanding the meaning of hurricane maps – a NY Times Opinion Piece: Those Hurricane Maps Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean
Keep track of Hagerty’s incident coverage here:
HURRICANE SEASON 2021
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