6 common misconceptions about hurricane season

A Bay St. Louis fire department truck drives down Miss. 603 during Hurricane Isaac on Aug. 29, 2012. Isaac was the last hurricane to cause widespread damage in South Mississippi.
A Bay St. Louis fire department truck drives down Miss. 603 during Hurricane Isaac on Aug. 29, 2012. Isaac was the last hurricane to cause widespread damage in South Mississippi. File

If you’ve seen one hurricane, you’ve seen them all, right? Wrong.

Even the most seasoned Gulf Coast residents have something to learn about the amazingly complex and destructive storms that are hurricanes.

That’s why we asked an expert meteorologist to share his knowledge. Rocco Calaci is a partner and chief meteorologist at a weather technology company called MetLoop. He’s been studying the weather for 46 years, and his daily email on Gulf Coast weather has thousands of readers.

Here’s six common misconceptions he said people have about hurricanes:

1. Hurricane season is from June 1 to Nov. 30

Yes and no. Unfortunately, global weather patterns largely ignore our detailed way of tracking time. For example, 2017 saw its first named storm — Tropical Storm Arlene — in April. Many people on the Gulf Coast associate August with peak hurricane season, and that’s mostly accurate. But it may surprise you to know that, historically, the most active day for hurricane activity is Sept. 12.

Calaci said for the Gulf Coast, the peak is generally from mid-August to mid-September, when the Gulf of Mexico waters are warm and provide fuel for passing storms.

There are a frankly mind-numbing amount of factors that can affect where a hurricane goes, but Calaci says he generally keeps an eye on a few throughout the season.

One is something called the Intertropical Convergence Zone, which he described as a shifting belt around the globe where winds in the Southern Hemisphere meet winds in the Northern Hemisphere. Usually around late July and early August, the zone moves north far enough to create an ideal path for hurricanes to spin off the coast of Africa toward the United States. Once it gets above 11 degrees latitude, it sends those storms straight on over.

Another factor Calaci watches is the dust from the Sahara Desert. Yes, you read that right. Weather patterns actually carry the dust — known as the Saharan Air Layer — over the Atlantic Ocean to parts of the U.S. and South America. Fun fact: The dust actually fertilizes the Amazon rain forest and scientists credit this for the region’s amazing biodiversity. However, the dry air also acts as a barrier to hurricanes trying to cross the Atlantic.

2. El Nino is a major factor

Again, yes and no. Calaci takes issue with El Nino, saying there are actually three prevailing definitions. He said it’s like describing something as “tall.” It means different things to different people.

“I don’t believe in El Nino affecting hurricanes,” he said.

Also, predictions so far vary wildly for how El Nino will behave this year, when it will occur and how strong it will be.

However, Calaci did say generally El Nino brings stronger wind shear, which can prevent hurricanes from forming.

3. Global warming isn’t a major factor

The U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico waters have been seeing months of record heat over the past year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Why that’s happening is a topic of much debate, but the fact that it’s happening is not.

Heat is fuel for hurricanes.

“The Gulf is getting warmer at an earlier date each year,” he said. “That means there’s more potential for stronger hurricanes.”

4. All hurricanes form off the Coast of Africa

Actually, hurricanes are more than capable of forming anywhere, including in the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea. An example is Hurricane Otto in November last year, which formed in the western Caribbean.

These kinds of storms are a unique threat because of how quickly they form and how close they already are to land. Combine that with the aforementioned hotter-than-usual Gulf waters, and we have a dangerous combination.

They also don’t follow the peak season rules, as the ITCZ zone and Saharan dust aren’t as much of an issue. So be on the lookout for tropical systems that pop up in May, June and July.

4. Tornadoes only happen in the outer bands of a hurricane

No. Tornadoes can occur anywhere in a hurricane if the conditions are right.

5. Microbursts only happen in thunderstorms

Microbursts are sudden, powerful drafts of air that drop down and wreak havoc. Calaci said there were actually a lot of them during Hurricane Katrina.

“A hurricane is just a rotating area of thunderstorms,” he said, so microbursts can occur at any time during one.

6. Preparation is for newbies

“People don’t prepare,” he said. “People don’t think of what they should be doing now when they have the opportunity.”

Quick question for homeowners: Do you know exactly how much your house is insured for, and proof of what you own? You should.

Calaci said people who bought a house a decade or more ago may not have updated their insurance policy to reflect its current value. Mississippi Coast residents found that out the hard way after Katrina.

He said to check with your insurance company to see what you need to prove what you own, such as photos of your property.

“If a hurricane hits and you lose everything, you’ve got nothing to start with.”

And check the policy. Do you have flood insurance? Wind insurance?

He said insurance companies and local emergency management agencies both have great information on how to prepare. And preparing is always preferable to the alternative.

Lauren Walck: 228-896-2393, @laurenwalck

Have a financial plan

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency wants to remind everyone that it is essential to think about finances as part of your preparedness plan for hurricane season.

“After a hurricane or tropical storm, it is important to remember that if power is out, things like ATMs will not work,” said MEMA Executive Director Lee Smithson. “If you have to purchase goods or materials after a storm, it is good idea to keep cash on hand, as credit card machines may be out of service.”

Here are some helpful tips to keep your finances ready for hurricane season:

  • Start an emergency savings account. Most experts recommend having a minimum of three to six months of living expenses in an emergency fund, if possible. These funds can be used to make disaster repairs, cover insurance deductibles or pay monthly bills if your income is interrupted by job loss. Also keep some cash on hand, in case credit card machines and ATMs are not working.
  • Review your insurance coverage. Review your policy and make sure you have the proper amount of coverage to repair or replace your home and belongings. Pay special attention to deductibles that apply to specific events, such as hurricanes, which can be a percentage of your home’s value. Also, review your flood coverage, because it is not included in most homeowners insurance policies.
  • Secure critical documents. Make sure your critical documents are in a safe, secure place and could be taken with you if you have to evacuate. Documents you will want to secure include driver’s license, green card, passport, Social Security and tax information, titles, deeds, and registrations for property and vehicles owned; insurance policies, credit cards, bank and investment records; birth certificates, marriage certificates and wills. Invest in a water and fire-proof box or safe-deposit box to keep these records secure. You could also keep copies of them electronically on portable drives or make hard copies.
  • Review your “what if” scenarios and make a plan. What if your place of employment is damaged and will close either for a few weeks or indefinitely? The rebuilding effort after a storm often creates new job opportunities. What if schools are closed and you don’t have a place to bring your children? What if your home is damaged and no longer safe to live in? Talk to friends and neighbors about sharing the childcare responsibilities until schools reopen.

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency