Despite dire predictions of an above-average hurricane season, 2013 turned out to be one of the quietest in decades. With that in mind, weather expert Dr. William Gray at the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University predicted that 2014 will see below-average activity.
Gray forecasted in April that 2014 will see nine named storms with three of them reaching hurricane strength, but only one of them major. Major hurricane status means the storm will reach Category 3 status or higher. The Weather Channel has predicted 11 named storms with five hurricanes, and two major.
"A mild season prediction by the National Hurricane Center is the kind of outlook we like to see," said Lee County Emergency Management Public Safety Director Rob Farmer. "We will watch the weather forecasts, watch all depressions and waves closely for the next few months. Every storm is different. It doesn't take a strong hurricane to present a destructive storm surge, that's why we are putting more emphasis out to our visitors and citizens to understand that."
The Atlantic hurricane season covers the North Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Season starts June 1 and runs through Nov. 30 each year.
Since hurricanes and storms have been tracked, the overall average for a season is 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and three major events.
Meteorologists have observed cooler-than-normal water temperatures in the eastern and central Atlantic Ocean stretching from the African coast to the Windward Islands. They also believe that an El Nino will develop and produce upper level atmosphere wind currents over the Atlantic basin that are unfavorable for storm development.
The National Weather Service defines a hurricane as "an intense tropical weather system with well-defined circulation and sustained winds of 74 mph or higher." Storms are rated according to intensity on the Saffir-Simpson Scale from Category 1 to 5.
Gray's probabilities for at least one major hurricane landfall on the entire U.S. coastline is 35 percent (average 52 percent last century); U.S. East Coast including Florida 20 percent (average 31 percent); and the Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle west to Brownsville 19 percent (average 30 percent). He also predicted the probability of a major storm tracking into the Caribbean at 28 percent (average 42 percent).
Just because a below average active season is forecasted officials warn people about letting their guard down.
"Starting with National Hurricane Awareness Week (May 19-24), we start bringing in all of our response partners for an orientation process so they know where they will be and what their role is," said Farmer. "We really won't ramp things up until the National Hurricane Center says we fall into those three- to six-day counts for a storm, but we do a lot of preparedness all along."
Lee County Emergency Management recently added two experts to the staff. Jim Bjostad is the department's new emergency management program manager and Lee Mayfield is the new emergency planning manager.
Bjostad has worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA through the Department of Defense's Federal Geographic Data Committee. He also served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 29 years.
Mayfield is a former Collier County emergency management coordinator and EOC operations chief. He has worked for the Florida Division of Emergency Management as regional liaison to 10 EMO programs in southwest Florida.
"Residents and visitors must learn that it may be time when an evacuation is given even when it is sunny and bright outside," said Farmer. "We don't wait until the last minute to get people moving to shelters, but we don't want to pull the trigger too early, either. You can outrun the wind, but you can't outrun the water. We can survive the wind, but not the water."
Lee County EMO officials are encouraging citizens with iPhones and Android devices to download the new LeeEvac app which can be used to find out what evacuation zone you live in and provide links to other important information sources.
More than 200 colored/lettered tags have been placed on evacuation route and shelter signs throughout the county. These tags emphasize the importance of knowing your zone for when it's your time to leave.
"When we get a low turnout at shelters some times we look at it as a positive," said Farmer. "Maybe people had other places to go. We've never been in the position of having more people than space.
All of this information also can be found on the website (www.leeeoc.com) as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
Starting this year, residents needing transportation to and from emergency shelters will be able to use LeeTran buses. Once an evacuation notice is issued, LeeTran may suspend its regular fares.
The National Hurricane Center issues a hurricane watch approximately 48 hours before a region could expect to experience hurricane conditions. A hurricane warning indicates a storm with a strength of sustained winds of at least 74 mph is expected within 36 hours.
Whether there is an evacuation order issued or not, household hurricane preparedness kits should contain necessary items such as batteries, flashlights, radios, medical supplies, fresh water (one gallon per person, per day) and food to last several days in the event of a power outage. It doesn't take a named storm to knock out power for an extended period.
For residents new to Southwest Florida, it is recommended they attend one of the many hurricane seminars held in June and July throughout the area. Seminars help become more familiar with storms, warnings, tracking and weather radar, storm surges, tornadoes associated with storms, shelter locations (disability, special needs and pet friendly ones), and evacuation routes. Watch media outlets for dates and times of these seminars at area libraries, schools and other meeting facilities.
Seminars are conducted by meteorologists, police, fire and emergency management personnel. If an evacuation is ordered, it is imperative to have a family plan to stay with friends or relatives, book a hotel room out of the path of a storm, or in designated public shelters as a last resort.
Lee County residents can apply online to reserve space in the special needs shelters. They also can call the EOC at (239) 533-0622 to request an application be mailed to them. A completed application can be mailed, faxed (239-477-3636) or emailed to email@example.com.
Those with special needs should be accompanied by a companion or caregiver as shelters have limited staff. Food and water is provided at the shelter, but officials recommend everyone bring extra drinks and snacks. Each person with special dietary restrictions is responsible for bringing their own food. Also bring along personal hygiene items for up to seven days, medications, blankets, books, cards or games. A cot is provided for the person registered, but caregivers should bring something to sleep on.
Service animals are allowed in all shelters, but pets are only allowed at the pet friendly shelter at South Fort Myers High School.
Atlantic storm names for 2014: Arthur; Bertha; Cristobal; Dolly; Edouard; Fay; Gonsalo; Hanna; Isaias; Josephine; Kyle; Laura; Marco; Nana; Omar; Paulette; Rene; Sally; Teddy; Vicky; and Wilfred.
More detailed hurricane and shelter lists are available on the Emergency Management website at www.leeeoc.com, or call (239) 533-3622.