June marks the start of the U.S. hurricane season, and scientists are predicting that the Atlantic will see fewer of the storms than usual between now and Nov. 30. That might well be the case — and welcome news if it is — but that's no guarantee that Maryland won't see a major event this year or indication that local residents shouldn't prepare for the worst.
It's not that forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are wrong in their call for three to six potential hurricanes with a maximum sustained wind of at least 75 miles per hour with perhaps two rising to 111 mph or more. That's still below normal because the average on the East Coast is a dozen named storms and a half-dozen hurricanes.
But it's one thing to expect fewer major storms during a season, it's quite another to predict their path and destructive power. In 2012, NOAA forecasters predicted the hurricane season would also be less intense and it was. But that year also produced Hurricane Sandy, which absolutely battered the East Coast, particularly the New Jersey/New York area where it made landfall as the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded — a so-called superstorm — that took 181 lives, cut power to millions of homes and businesses, caused an estimated $68 billion in damages and affected 24 states from Maine to Florida including Maryland.
Is the East Coast destined for another Sandy? It's impossible to know for sure, but the possibility is why no hurricane season should be taken lightly. Last year's forecast for a light hurricane season essentially came true, and what this year and last have in common are relatively cool Atlantic Ocean temperatures and the presence of an El Nino — a band of warm ocean water in the eastern Pacific — to suppress potential storms.
Yet even this year, the Atlantic saw its first tropical storm a month ago, an unusually early formation. Tropical Storm Ana (which hit the South Carolina coast around Mother's Day) produced more than six inches of rain and wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour in some locations. And while experts say an early storm isn't a sign of a heavy storm season ahead, it does underscore the unpredictability of severe weather.
Maryland isn't the most likely target along the Atlantic, but it's certainly a vulnerable one. While Miami and the Gulf Coast cities are considered the most at-risk locations, Northeastern cities located along the waterfront like Baltimore and Annapolis rank near the top of the vulnerability list, too, because of their high density of population and the possibility of significant storm surge and flooding. Climate change and the likelihood of continued sea level rise and increasingly powerful storms fueled by a warming atmosphere are only going to make matters worse.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency advises residents to check emergency equipment such as flashlights, generators, a first-aid kit including prescription and non-prescription drugs, emergency tools and a cellphone as well as a radio capable of receiving NOAA weather reports during a power outage. One should have a supply of non-perishable food and drinking water (at least a three-day supply of both assuming one gallon of water per person per day) and plywood to protect the home from high winds and flying objects. Trees and shrubbery should be trimmed, rain gutters and downspouts cleared and insurance policies reviewed long before any storms are on the horizon. Emergency phone numbers should be posted by the phone (at a minimum, children should be taught how to dial 911) and smoke alarms and fire extinguishers should be tested and ready to go.
If a hurricane does strike, experts say to fill your bathtubs with fresh water to keep later for flushing or cleaning if water service is lost, take refuge in a small interior, first-floor room, closet or hallway, staying away from windows. Also, it is wise to keep a radio or television tuned to hear real-time updates and advisories as the storm approaches as well as afterward to learn such vital information as whether the tap water is still safe or roads are closed.
Marylanders can at least take comfort in knowing that significant steps have been taken in recent years to improve the state's capacity to manage storm water — curbing waterfront development, protecting wetlands and flood plains and creating sediment ponds along with other infrastructure to better control runoff from streets and other non-porous surfaces. Whether enough has been done (or enough money invested in that effort through the often-maligned "rain tax" and other sources) may be revealed by the next "Katrina" or similar disaster.