Hurricane Alex strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane Wednesday night just before it hit landfall approximately 110 miles south of Brownsville, TX.
Although the first tropical storm of the Atlantic season did not take it across the actual oil spil off the Louisiana coast, rough seas created by Alex was expected to drive the leaking oil further inland.
In 2008, Hurricane Dolly followed a similar track, dropping devastating rain and wind on on low-lying areas in the region. As Alex moves inland, emergency officials worry that residents in the Rio Grande Valley could experience similar flooding.
Weather forecasters are predicting the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season has the potential to become one of the worst storm seasons on record. Alex was the first time since 1995 that a hurricane has formed in the Atlantic basin during June.
Private forecasting organizations Accuweather.com and the Tropical Meteorology Project of the Colorado State University led by Dr. William Gray are predicting that named hurricane numbers will be in the teens thanks to warmer than normal Atlantic temperatures.
One of the unknowns as this season begins is what the storms will hold for the Gulf of Mexico, where oil continues to spill from the damaged BP oil rig. With at least 18 storms now predicted, the situation on the Gulf could become even more precarious.
Since the BP oil rig exploded in April, hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude have flowed into the Gulf each day. The mess has reached from the Louisiana marshes to the Florida panhandle, with clean-up crews working around the clock in an attempt to minimize coastal damage. Adding hurricanes to the mix may only make things more difficult.
Forecasters from Accuweather.com and the Tropical Meteorology Project agree that the big question isn't how much damage homes and businesses will sustain, but how big the impact of increased storms will be on the Gulf Coast as a whole.
"Now, we have a lot of excess oil that can be spread around, but we don't know if it will help or just hinder things more by spreading out and diluting the oil," said Joe Bastardi, Chief Hurricane Meteorologist for Accuweather.com. "But it is the Loop Current that matters for hurricane season, not the excess oil in the Gulf. When the water warmed after winter…it was like a pot that is already boiling and the heat is being turned up. It's going to blow, we just don't know when or by how much."
That what-if factor has disaster response organizations watching the situation in the Atlantic closely, although there is little they can do until a storm actually hits land.
"What we do is start to look at the National Hurricane Center to get good information to track what is happening in the Atlantic, but it really doesn't affect that much what we do during the season," said Bill Adams, Director of Disaster Response Services with Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). "We're all concerned over what will happen if there is a major storm that would bring the oil on-shore. That will cause terrible contamination on-shore. The big impact will be if there is contamination -- responders have to react very differently with how they respond and how they work to clean up the oil as well as what the hurricane left behind."
The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, Assistant General Secretary for Disaster Response in the U.S. for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) agrees. While UMCOR works with its regional conferences to constantly be ready to respond to disasters, they can't do anything today for a hurricane that may or may not develop in a few weeks or months. "We can't doing anything specific to get ready for hurricane season at this point, because we don't know what will happen," said Hazelwood.
"We just don't know what effect a hurricane will have on the oil in the Gulf," he added. "If it brings a bunch of oil in and inundates the shore line, then yes it's a huge impact because volunteers can't work [in those conditions]. It would be a HAZMAT situation at that point, but we just don't know at this point how hurricane season will impact anything in the Gulf."
According to Bastardi we can expect to see between 18 and 21 named storms, six being hurricanes and at least two hurricanes ranking at Category 3 or higher.
"You could see the La Nina coming in February, but until the U.S. computer models reacted in May we couldn't upgrade or update (the original forecast)," said Bastardi. "What I saw in May was warm water in the tropical grounds and cool water in the northern regions (of the Atlantic), which is why we upgraded from 16 to 18 named storms this season. When the Pacific cools and the Atlantic warms, as both did this year, nature does its dirty work."
Just as the Atlantic and Gulf regions of the U.S. will likely see more hurricane activity, Bastardi expects that the Pacific region will see fewer typhoons.
Klotzbach's forecast is similar to that from Accuweather.com. Dr. Gray's forecast also expects about 18 named storms with five major hurricanes hitting the U.S. from the Gulf regions through the mid-Atlantic states this storm season. He says Dr. Gray's forecast will not be updated until August when more detailed information is available.
"(We expect to see) about twice the level you'd see in the average hurricane season," said Klotzbach. "What we're seeing right now is similar to what we saw in the elevated 2005 hurricane season: weaker winds which means reduced evaporation over the ocean and reduced churning of the sea which means warmer temperatures."
On average the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that there are 9.4 named storms with 5.6 hurricanes and 1.9 major hurricanes.
If the 2010 hurricane season hits as meteorologists are predicting, it will likely be similar to the 1995, 1998, 2005 and 2008 seasons. In '95 there were 19 named storms, including 11 hurricanes, five of which were major. There were 16 named storms during the 2008 season with five major hurricanes. 2005 was the big one, however, with 28 named storms and seven major hurricanes – including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Those storms killed nearly 2,000 people and caused more than $170 billion in damages.
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