On Friday, another hurricane season is officially here.
Following a particularly tumultuous 2017 season, weather forecasters and county officials in Northwest Florida are banking on lessons learned last year as they head into preparations for the upcoming season.
“This year is expected to be either at the same level as last year or a little bit higher” in terms of the number and intensity of storms, said Ken Wolfe, emergency management coordinator for Okaloosa County. “It could be a highly active season.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 produced 17 named storms. Ten became hurricanes, including six major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5). The 2017 season also produced the first two major hurricanes to hit the continental United States in 12 years.
NOAA forecasters released their 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season predictions on May 24. Forecasters call for an at- or above-average season, similar to 2017, with 10 to 16 named storms, including five to nine hurricanes. They expect up to four of those to be major hurricanes.
But Jeff Goldberg, emergency management director for Walton County, said he doesn’t pay much attention to predictions.
“We’re preparing this year the same way we prepare every other year,” he said. “We don’t rely on predictions to dictate how we prepare for the season." Goldberg pointed out that the 1992 season, which produced Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, was supposed to have been a slow season. And, Goldberg added, "we’ve had a number of busy seasons where we’ve almost exceeded the alphabet and not one storm made landfall.”
Tom Lloyd, operations chief with Santa Rosa County Emergency Management, agreed.
“Everybody always asks about the number of storms predicted,” Lloyd said. “But in the world that we live in, it only takes one. One Dennis, one Ivan, to completely turn our community upside down … it’s not that we dismiss any specific storm predictions, but we treat them all the same and we prepare for anything.”
Officials said they’re looking to past experiences, not future predictions, to prepare for this season’s storms.
After Hurricane Irma battered South Florida and Central Florida in September 2017, teams from Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton County emergency management centers fanned out across the state to aid officials in the cleanup and recovery process. Goldberg said his team gained valuable information about debris removal, donated goods distribution and shelter protocol.
One of the biggest issues facing emergency coordinators this year, not just in Walton County but statewide, is finding people to volunteer in shelters and on Community Emergency Response Teams, Goldberg said.
“Volunteerism is down statewide,” he said. “We’re having to explore other potential avenues for shelter staffing.”
Lloyd, in Santa Rosa County, said his team gained experience with active water rescues, confined space rescues, and how to set up points of distribution to make relief efforts run more effectively.
“With that knowledge, hopefully things will run smoother with any situation that arises for us,” he said.
In Okaloosa County, Wolfe said he is working closely with local nursing homes to help them draft preparedness plans in case of power outages due to a hurricane. After Hurricane Irma, 12 people died in a Hollywood, Florida, nursing home when their generators failed.
“That was the biggest lesson from last year’s storms, the nursing homes,” Wolfe said. “That was the biggest issue that they had … caring for nursing homes and dealing with power failures, and how they were going to overcome those issues.”
A new state law requires nursing homes to have generator and temperature control plans. Wolfe said he reviewed about 23 plans in the last 15 days from local assisted-living facilities.
Even before hurricane season officially began, weather experts were closely watching the tropics on two separate occasions. On May 12, the National Hurricane Center issued its first tropical weather outlook of the season, for a low-pressure system in the Gulf of Mexico that, at its peak, had a 40 percent chance at developing into a tropical depression or storm. It eventually dissipated and posed no significant threat to the U.S. mainland.
And then, last week, a new system in the Caribbean produced Subtropical Storm Alberto. The storm brought gusty winds and nearly 4 inches of rain to the Fort Walton Beach area during the Memorial Day weekend.
But still, as officials look to the coming months, they hope people will plan ahead and have their evacuation plans, hurricane kits and go-kits ready for whatever Mother Nature decides to do.
“Our emergency management team is in place, they’ve got the experience, knowledge and training necessary to help keep everyone safe, stay informed and communicate well,” said Stefan Vaughn, Okaloosa County’s new director of public safety. “We’ll continue to do that for the public, to make sure that they are well informed with updated and accurate information.”