Before the embers could cool from the Independence Day fireworks, the Keys got a visit from our first tropical event of the 2021 season: Elsa. Thankfully, Elsa wasn’t much of a system as she passed our islands on her way north. The season, however, is just beginning.
Elsa is already the fifth named storm in this young season, with Ana, Bill, Claudette, and Danny having come and gone. Ana actually formed on May 22, more than a week before the official start of the season. But these systems don’t always play by the rules — and in a few instances, these storms kept forming even after running out of the names allocated for the year.
Last year was the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, with 30 named storms, 14 hurricanes, and seven major hurricanes. Eleven of them made landfall in the United States, and there were two Category 4 storms in November: Eta and Iota. Both of these caused extreme damage to Nicaragua.
After last year’s season, the WMO Hurricane Committee decided to quit using the letters of the Greek alphabet to name storms that formed after official names had all been used. A main rationale for this decision is that Eta and Iota, the two November Category 4 storms, would have been retired as Eta (2020) and Iota (2020). Starting this year, there is a secondary list of given names that can be officially retired if the storms are bad.
Looking back over the history of the worst storms to impact the Florida Keys, their names have a little something in common. With the exception of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that was nameless, most of the big tropical events that landed here have ended with the letter A: Donna (1960), Wilma (2005), and Irma (2017). Betsy (1965) and Georges (1998) were outliers, but they were offset by the extra 2005 hurricanes named Katrina and Rita. I’m really not suggesting that there is any kind of connection here at all, just as plane crashes and celebrity deaths don’t come in threes.
This year, the National Hurricane Center has forecast an above-average hurricane season, with a projected total of 13-20 named storms, 6-10 hurricanes, and 3-5 major hurricanes. If that holds true, they won’t run out of the official remaining names of Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, Julian, Kate, Larry, Mindy, Nicholas, Odette, Peter, Rose, Sam, Teresa, Victor, and Wanda. And I’m not suggesting that a fall hurricane could disrupt Major League Baseball’s World Series just because Peter and Rose are consecutive names on the list … but it is just a bit interesting.
In case we do have a really active season, there is a list of alternate names that replace the Greek alphabet names from the past. The list consists of a number of more modern names, and almost sounds like the roll call from this year’s first grade class: Adria, Braylen, Caridad, Deshawn, Emery, Foster, Gemma, Heath, Isla, Jacobus, Kenzie, Lucio, Makayla, Nolan, Orlanda, Pax, Ronin, Sophie, Tayshaun, Viviana, and Will.
If we look back at the two most recent major hurricanes to impact the Keys, they both ended with “-ma” — Wilma and Irma. I’m not suggesting anything here, but… there’s a Gemma on this year’s extended list.
All joking aside, hurricane season is upon us, and now’s the time to finish your plan for both sheltering in place and evacuation if mandated. Local emergency managers and local governments have their plans in place in the event we are affected by a hurricane, and these plans are better off having been battle-tested by Irma nearly five years ago. Each agency has its own Incident Command System (ICS) in place; each ICS is “a standardized approach to the command, control, and coordination of emergency response providing a common hierarchy within which responders from multiple agencies can be effective.” The ICS sets up how the agency or government entity will function in the aftermath of an emergency, designates essential personnel and their functions, and coordinates how different agencies and entities will work together.
Having a good ICS in place helped Marathon recover quickly from the immediate impacts of Irma, and will serve us well in the future should the need arise. So this year, please stay safe, listen to the emergency managers, and hope that Elsa was the only tropical event we’ll see locally this year.
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