Today marks the start of the 2018 hurricane season. Experts say it will produce about as may or slightly more storms than an average season would, but many places throughout the country are still grappling with the effects of last year’s devastating hurricanes, which cost the U.S. about $265 billion.
This week, a new study estimated that Hurricane Maria likely caused more deaths when it hit Puerto Rico last September than previously thought. And Bloomberg reported today that towns and cities in Florida and Texas hit hard by Hurricanes Maria and Irma last year still don’t have emergency funding from the federal government, putting their own budgets into a tailspin.
Here’s what we know about the upcoming hurricane season, and how states are preparing.
How do this year’s climate models compare to the last?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that the 2018 hurricane season will produce 10 to 16 named storms with winds of at least 39 mph. Of those storms, five to nine could become hurricanes with 74 mph winds, including one to four categorized as “major,” which have winds of at least 111 mph.
An average season usually produces 12 named storms, six of which turn into hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.
“2017 was particularly unusual because of the severity of the season,” NASA research meteorologist Scott A. Braun told the PBS NewsHour in a Facebook Live event.“We saw three major landfalls in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, the first time we had a major landfall since 2005.”
Why do experts think this season could produce the same number or slightly more storms that an average year would? Dr. Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, pointed to near-average sea surface temperatures across the Atlantic Ocean and the possibility of a weak El Nino developing this year.
Alex Amparo, external affairs director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that regardless of the predictions, the agency’s main focus will be on whether hurricanes make landfall, as that’s what causes damage inland.
What did we learn from last year’s storms?
In the past year, forecasters have pointed to hard lessons from the trio of hurricanes that swept the south late last year — that rain and flooding could be more damaging than wind, for instance, and that the center of a hurricane isn’t always the best way to measure its impact.
A Harvard study published Tuesday on deaths associated with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico could also give officials an even better understanding of what they can do to further prepare for the new hurricane season.
The study found that Hurricane Maria likely caused thousands of deaths in Puerto Rico, much higher than the government’s official death count of 64.
Researchers surveyed 3,299 randomly selected households across the island between Jan. 17 and Feb. 24, 2018. From that survey data, they estimated that 4,645 more people likely died in the three months after the hurricane than in the same period the previous year.
The study went on to say that the death toll could be as high as 8,498 or as low as 793.
“The estimate is extremely imprecise and it’s best imagined as a range,” Harvard’s Caroline Buckee told the NewsHour. “We are 95 percent confident that the number of excess death lies in that range.”
On Friday, Puerto Rico officials released their own update on death numbers from the last three years. It shows a jump in the number of deaths in September 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit, and in the month that followed. The total number of deaths in 2017 was 31,001, which was higher than either of the previous two years.
The study’s researchers say accurate estimates of fatalities and illnesses related to Hurricane Maria “are critical to the immediate response, as well as for future risk reduction and preparedness planning.”
Buckee said she hopes the findings help Puerto Rico understand, among other things, how different regions of the island are affected, how infrastructure can be improved, how household sizes are shifting and how to improve response times to medical needs.
“We hope that that will be helpful in a very concrete way to the government as they prepare for the next hurricane season,” she said, adding that the study could help officials beyond Puerto Rico get ready for the coming storms.
Recovering from the last hurricane season while preparing for the next one
As cities and states cross the country brace for the new hurricane season, they’re still feeling the effects of the last one.
The NewsHour reported earlier this year that last year’s massive hurricanes, severe storms and wildfires across the country caused more than $306 billion in damage, making 2017 the most expensive year for climate disasters on record. Hurricane Harvey alone caused $125 billion in damage.
In February, President Donald Trump signed into law a budget that provides nearly $90 billion in relief to victims recovering from last year’s natural disasters, including those in Florida and Puerto Rico. That budget included aid for farmers, schools and infrastructure.
But some areas are still waiting for other relief.
As Bloomberg reports, local officials in Florida and Texas have not yet received reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the damage caused by last year’s storms. Delayed funds could force local governments to tap into emergency funds, borrow money and cut spending, leaving them with less money to prepare for the next disaster.
FEMA denied the claims that it has been slow to deliver disaster aid, telling the NewsHour that it is committed to ensuring funding reaches states and territories across the nation.
FEMA’s Amparo said the agency’s Disaster Relief Fund supplies resources to help recovery efforts. This includes, among other things, purchasing commodities such as food and water and providing health services to victims.