Preparing for the Unexpected
As the 2020 hurricane season began on June 1, we spoke with Rick Luettich, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) and lead principal investigator of the Coastal Resilience Center (CRC), about this year's natural hazard forecast, planning protocols, and how COVID-19 may affect vulnerable populations.
What are the storm activity predictions for the 2020 hurricane season?
It looks like this year will be above average for tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ocean surface temperatures are above normal in both the Gulf of Mexico and the main hurricane generation region between the west coast of Africa and the Caribbean Sea. Also, the El Niño cycle appears that it will be near neutral through the summer and potentially become negative in the fall. A positive El Niño generates wind shear that tends to keep tropical cyclones from forming in the Atlantic. Neutral or negative El Niño conditions are more favorable for tropical cyclone formation in this region.
How will IMS, which is located in a vulnerable location on the coast in Morehead City, prepare for the active storm season? And how will the new upgrades to IMS facilities aid in this planning?
We are fortunate that while IMS is located on the shore of Bogue Sound in Morehead City, it sits on relatively high ground. Thus, it is not especially vulnerable to hurricane storm surge, although significant shoreline erosion can occur during hurricanes and can impact our outdoor experimental facilities. Otherwise, IMS is susceptible to damage from high winds, heavy rainfall, and extended power outages.
We prepare each year by keeping our grounds picked up, our facilities in good repair, and space reserved for our 48-foot research vessel, Capricorn, at a local boat yard. With funding from the OVCR, we were recently able to install an emergency generator to keep critical systems running such as our seawater-circulating system, deep freezers, and the building network and internet connection.
How, if at all, has ADCIRC been upgraded since last year's hurricane season to improve storm surge prediction and storm path?
The primary improvements we've implemented this year in ADCIRC are better representation of how vegetation on land impacts the storm surge predictions and better geospatial representations of several regions along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
How will the new planning scorecard developed by the CRC help local officials prepare for this year's natural hazards?
Due to the pandemic, rolling out the planning scorecard has occurred more slowly than originally intended. Also, planning has a longer-term horizon than the current year. Our hope is that better planning in the near term will affect development decisions in areas that have a high probability of being impacted by future hazards. The payoff will be realized down the road when flooding in these high-hazard areas has lessened impact on people and property.
How will COVID-19 protocols affect disaster preparedness plans?
I expect that fears of COVID-19 will greatly impact disaster preparedness plans due to the need to plan for social distancing on the one hand and high density congregation in shelters or other facilities in response to a major coastal weather event on the other. Similarly, it is not clear whether fear of COVID-19 might curtail neighbors helping neighbors in the aftermath of a storm. We continue to try to provide the best available information on storm surge and flooding from ADCIRC for each major coastal event so that it can be used in all planning activities.