The message to Hampton Roads and other East Coast communities is to buckle up for a bumpy hurricane season, as federal forecasters predict an especially active year in the Atlantic.
The national Climate Prediction Center said Thursday there's a 45 percent chance that storm activity in 2017 will be above-normal, a 35 percent chance it'll be near-normal and only a 20 percent chance it'll be below-normal. The center is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This could mean 11 to 17 named storms in the Atlantic, with five to nine of them whipping up into hurricanes with minimum sustained winds of 74 mph. Of those, two to four could become major blows of Category 3 or higher, or minimum sustained winds of 111 mph.
It's impossible this far out to predict if any of those storms will make landfall.
NOAA had forecast a more active season last year, too, and the Atlantic saw 15 named storms and seven hurricanes, four of them major. It was the most active season since 2012.
An average Atlantic season sees 11 storms stirring up six hurricanes, two or three of them major ones.
Forecasters say their hurricane models are still showing some uncertainty this early in the season, but key factors in their prediction so far are a neutral El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific, warming sea-surface temperatures and weak-to-average wind shear.
El Ninos tend to create wind shear in the Atlantic, which rips the heads off of storms before they can develop into hurricanes. Warmer waters, meanwhile, fuel hurricanes.
"So it's really a combination of factors this year that are pointing to a more active season," said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with the Climate Prediction Center, in a phone conference with reporters.
"Whether El Nino develops and whether it becomes strong enough to increase the wind shear and suppress the season, it's not clear that will happen. That's why we're predicting a near-normal or above-normal season, with above-normal being most likely."
In fact, the season technically kicked off last month, when Arlene, a rare preseason storm, formed in the eastern Atlantic. The season officially runs from June 1 to the end of November, but outliers can occur.
One of last year's major hurricanes was Matthew, which developed at the end of September and whipped up into a Category 5 — the first of that strength since 2007.
By the time Matthew dissipated two weeks later, it had wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and along the Southeastern U.S. coast, killing 34 people in this country and nearly 500 in Haiti.
Matthew skirted Hampton Roads on Oct. 8-9 as a Category 1 before veering off into the Atlantic. It's blamed for two deaths in Isle of Wight County and Suffolk, and is suspected in a third in Hampton. It devastated crops, knocked out power for days and caused millions of dollars in damage to the region, much of it from flooding and storm surge.
Matthew wasn't even a major hurricane when it struck the U.S., yet the flooding it wrought caused $10 billion worth of damage, said Ben Friedman, NOAA's acting administrator.
"Just because it's not a major hurricane doesn't mean it's not dangerous, doesn't mean it's not deadly, doesn't mean that we don't need to be prepared for it," Friedman said.
Flooding, said Mary Erickson, deputy director of NOAA's National Weather Service, "is one of the most dangerous elements of hurricanes, but often overlooked because folks are more focused on winds."
Hampton Roads is especially vulnerable to storm surge because it's already experiencing increased recurrent flooding from sea level rise that climate scientists say is caused by global climate change.
NOAA officials urge residents of hurricane-prone areas to prepare now for the season. Emergency preparedness guidelines are available online at ready.gov/virginia.
Tips include writing down your family's emergency plan, building a supply kit with enough food, water and essential medical supplies to last several days, knowing your local shelters and evacuation route and making sure you have enough flood insurance.
"But whatever it is, you need to start now — not after the storm arrives," said Friedman.
NOAA says it'll be using new and improved forecasting and storm tracking tools this year, allowing them to issue storm surge watches and warnings on its noaa.gov website, in addition to advisories, watches and warnings for storm systems that aren't yet hurricanes but still threaten land.
The public can use NOAA's new experimental visualization tools to see when damaging winds are forecast to reach their community, and how far severe winds will extend beyond the hurricane track cone.
NOAA's new GOES-16 satellite will be positioned over the East Coast later this year, where an onboard camera will offer forecasters greater image resolution, while a separate "lightning mapper" instrument on board will track lightning strikes inside a tropical cyclone, a possible signal that it's gaining strength.
NOAA also has upgraded two high-resolution hurricane models to markedly improve forecasts of a storm's strength and possible track.
"The bottom line is, we're expecting a lot of activity this season," said Bell. "Whether it's near-normal or above-normal, that's a lot of storms, a lot of hurricanes. So now is the time to make sure you're ready for another potentially active hurricane season."
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.
Tips for the hurricane season
Preparing for a hurricane should begin now, before the season starts. ReadyVirginia of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management suggests you have:
•A written emergency plan for your family — including family pets;
•Three days of water and food that won't spoil or need electricity to prepare;
•1-3 gallons of water per day for drinking and hygiene;
•A battery-powered and/or hand-crank radio with extra batteries;
•Flashlights with extra batteries;
•A first-aid kid, including contact lenses or glasses and medical prescriptions;
•Toilet paper, soap, plastic garbage bags and other hygiene items;
•Special items for elderly or disabled family members.
If you have to evacuate your home, take your emergency supply kit. Try to stay with family or friends, in a hotel, motel or public shelter. Know your evacuation route.
For more information, go to ready.gov or ready.gov/virginia.