Unfortunately, yet again, Miamians don't get to enjoy the ripening of delicious tropical fruits for long before having to worry about their mango trees getting knocked down. Hurricane season officially starts today, and meteorologists expect it to be another doozy. And the pandemic isn't over yet.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) says there's a 60 percent chance of this year being another above-average Atlantic hurricane season, just as it predicted in 2020.
In April, NOAA updated its classifications for average and above-average storm seasons. While previously an average hurricane season was one with 12 named storms and six hurricanes, now the average is considered 14 named storms and seven hurricanes. NOAA says the higher averages may be influenced both by improved observation methods and by warming oceans caused by climate change.
Even with the higher threshold, NOAA is expecting this season to be more active than usual. Forecasters say the likely range for named storms this year is 13 to 20, six to ten of which could become hurricanes. Of those, three to five could be major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher.
Although Miami scraped by last year with mostly just close calls — barring some troublesome flooding caused by Tropical Storm Eta — 2020 was a record-breaking hurricane season in the Atlantic. Last season saw 30 named storms, the most in a single year since 2005. There were so many storms that we ran out of letters in the English alphabet and had to switch to Greek.
Luckily, NOAA doesn't expect 2021 to be as prolific as its predecessor. But if there are more storms this year than letters in the ABCs, Greek letters will no longer be used. Instead, storm names will reset at A.
Last year was the first hurricane season Miami had with the double whammy of a global pandemic that came with public-health guidelines urging people to stay home, complicating hurricane shelter plans. While the overall state of emergency from COVID-19 has calmed down since last summer, the pandemic is still very much a thing, and emergency managers are still looking to mitigate risks from the virus in their hurricane plans.
Miami-Dade County Emergency Management Director Frank Rollason tells New Times that in the event of an evacuation order because of a storm, people who arrive at county shelters will be screened for COVID. Staff at the shelters will check temperatures and ask evacuees if they currently have the virus, if they've had symptoms, or if they've recently been in contact with anyone who had the virus.
Anyone who answers yes to those questions will be allowed into the shelter but will be placed in separate accommodations from other groups. In shelters located in schools, evacuees will be placed in smaller classroom groups to mitigate the risk of possible virus transmission in larger rooms.
Rollason says the county will advise evacuees to wear facemasks but won't turn away people who refuse to wear them. Those who choose not to wear masks will be separated into a different group from those who do, and shelter staff will stagger meal times so the two groups will eat separately.
Shelter staff will not ask evacuees if they've been vaccinated, Rollason says, but the county recommends that anyone planning to evacuate in the event of a hurricane should consider getting vaccinated now.
"If your plan is to come to an evacuation center, it's in your best interest to get vaccinated now. You have time now," Rollason says. "People living in trailers or low-lying areas, if it's in your plan to evacuate, we're highly recommending you get vaccinated."
Shelters will also be stocked with masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for evacuees. Rollason says the county will do its best to give each person at least five feet of separation in shelters, but in the event of a major hurricane where more people need to evacuate, shelter space may not allow for normal social-distancing measures.
"We want to make you as safe as we can from both the storm and the virus. The potential of having a superspreader event is there, and we'll do all we can to prevent that," Rollason says.
Those looking for up-to-date information on developing hurricanes and tropical storms can visit the National Hurricane Center website or follow it on Twitter.