2020 will be a year hard forgotten, as it plunged most of the world into uncertain waters. The spread of COVID-19 put life on hold, major wildfires scorched California and Australia, and the most active hurricane season to date churned out 30 named storms in the Atlantic. The 2020 Atlantic season outpaced the previous record of 28 tropical developments set in 2005, which included the likes of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. 2020 broke several other records, including the most concurrent active cyclones since 1971, the earliest development of numerous storms by number, and only the second season to exhaust all standard letters in the alphabet used for naming storms, resorting to the Greek alphabet following.
While many would prefer to leave 2020 to the history books, it's critical to review what made this particular year a hyperactive hurricane season and learn how to approach future hurricane safety and damage mitigation proactively.
Preliminary Atlantic condition reports are released as early as February into May by notable sources, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), Colorado State University, and several large weather corporations. Many favorable factors that signal prime conductivity for tropical storms were identified early in the season and were forecasted to remain present for an extended period.
Among those favorable factors were warmer sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Caribbean with an enhanced African monsoon. Storms were given a kick-start from monsoon winds rolling off the west African coast, organizing and strengthening as they moved across the warmer waters. The make-or-break for storms following formation are vertical wind shears, which were reported lower than usual, otherwise pushing storms Northward outside of the warmer waters or suppressing the storm's ability to organize.
Another major factor was the early presence of El Niña. El Niña is part of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle and refers to colder temperature fluctuations in the ocean along the east-central Equatorial Pacific. It fluctuates with its partner El Niño, and El Niña's early presence further reduced wind shear across the Caribbean and Atlantic basin, given storms a long, uncontested runway to intensify.
With all of these weather patterns and more coinciding at the right time, 2020's record-breaking, hyperactive hurricane season began.
The official Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1st and runs through November 30th, but by the beginning of 2020's season, the Atlantic had already spawned two storms, Arthur and Bertha. With a typical 12 storms per season, 2020 yet again stepped outside of the norm, spawning ten storms by August 13th and a total of 30 storms by November 10th. Of those storms, 27 broke the record for the earliest formation by storm letter, starting with Cristobal, then Edouard, and every storm following. Notably, 2020 is only the second year on record behind 2005 to exhaust its initial list of names, resorting to the Greek alphabet as an auxiliary list up through Iota.
The season was not only active but vicious as well. A total of 11 storms made landfall in the contiguous United States, breaking the record of nine set in 1916. Hurricane Laura became the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in Louisiana as a category 4 storm, with estimators reporting between $4 billion to $12 billion in losses. As evaluations continue for these impacts, an overall loss figure encompassing the entire season has yet to be determined. Current estimates range from hundreds of millions to billions in insured losses per storm landfall. Mexico and the Caribbean Isles also suffered extensive damages from multiple follow-up batterings, including Eta and the only category 5 storm of the season, Iota.
It's important to note that while 2020 stands on its own as a record-breaking hurricane season, it's part of a bigger picture. Over the past 40 years, tropical storms have grown in both numbers and intensity, as physical and economic losses also continue to rise. Understanding the pattern of increasingly severe coastal impacts each year tells us we need to reform our approach to counteracting hurricane losses.
Understanding how and when hurricanes are likely to form isn't enough to minimize losses; it requires proactive engagement from multiple parties to improve disaster response, recovery, and resilience effectively. Yes, anticipating an active hurricane season can allow communities to adopt early preventive measures or insurers to offer provisional or extended coverages. But the increasing severity of storms requires a proactive rather than a reactive approach to bring about profitable results.
With the increasing risk for coastal properties, many structures existed before or chose not to adopt modern resilience standards. A small price upfront to renovate and implement sustainable materials and building codes can create a structure capable of weathering out any storm, avoiding physical losses altogether. Seeking out early consulting to evaluate facility resilience can help identify problematic structural deficiencies and decide where improvements are needed. Alternatively, in lower-risk areas, finding a priority response partner that can provide immediate post-disaster aid won't prevent a loss but can help expedite recovery and mitigate secondary damages.
Among RMC's experts is a wealth of catastrophe professionals that have responded to all major hurricanes over the past 30 years. Our team knows how to be on-site first following any storm, providing the services needed to identify loss scopes, prepare recovery estimates and schedules, and ensure a quick turnaround of quality restoration and reconstruction work. We coordinate with insurers and owners to find the most efficient path to recovery and offer innovative response technologies, mindful of the current climate. We strive to educate ourselves and others in hurricane response and resilience measures, helping rebuild safer facilities and communities.
Hurricane statistics courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Loss estimates courtesy of CoreLogic.