By: Tommy Romanach
Chances are, the Gulf Coast will see another light year in hurricanes. But this is still Louisiana, and hurricane researchers are adamant that taking chances is still unwise.
“People tend to forget things,” said LSU coastal engineering professor Jim Chen. “We have had some quiet seasons, but we still live here. We need to be prepared, we need to pay attention to every new forecast.”
Hurricane season officially began on June 1, and only seen one tropical storm hit shores so far. Nearly all research points to more of the same, with predictions typically ranging between six and eight named storms this year.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Atlantic is estimated to produce three to six hurricanes this season, with only a 10 percent chance of an above-normal number of storms.
A major factor in these forecasts is 2015 being an El Niño year. Every few years, temperatures within the southern Pacific Ocean are warmed more than usual, generating an enormous amount of energy. This energy then propagates through the atmosphere and creates weather anomalies across the globe.
One of those anomalies occurs in the Atlantic, creating wind shears over the tropical regions. When a hurricane attempts to form in the Atlantic basin, the rapidly blowing winds help mitigate the storm, and storms that do form tend to weaken.
LSU professor Barry Keim is a climatologist, dealing with the long-term patterns of storms and how they affect Louisiana’s local nuances. He recognizes El Niño’s power, but says that Louisiana’s landscape puts it at a disadvantage compared to other states.
“We have a lot of wetlands, and wetlands by their very nature are located very close to sea level. We can inundate lots of land with just a small storm surge,” Keim said. “Along the east coast, you don’t have quite as many wetland ecosystems, and when you get a storm surge, it hits up against a rising coastline and the storm surge does not propagate inland quite as far.”
Chen, who does research in storm surge and coastal erosion, came to LSU less than a decade ago and has already experienced some storm’s strength first hand. He’s seen his power go out for two weeks during Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and the flooding in areas like Plaquemine during Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
One similarity he saw in these storms was how weak they were considered according to the category system. Chen claims this system was developed for Florida coasts, and therefore inaccurate for Baton Rouge and other Louisiana areas.
Areas like the Mississippi River Delta take in a storm surge far different than the beaches and barrier islands of Florida, and Chen estimates a hurricane in Louisiana can generate three times the power than the Sunshine State.
“You cannot just listen to what the National Weather Service says,” Chen said. “You cannot be like, ‘Oh this is Category one it is no big deal.’ No, it’s a big deal.”
As the state approaches the tenth anniversary of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, both Keim and Chen have seen residents pay more attention to research and projections by people like themselves. Louisianans have become more sensitive to early forecasts, ready to evacuate or board up their home when needed.
Chen hopes residents continue this attitude, knowing a few down seasons may make people less cautious of a storm’s potential.
“Typically people may lower their expectations for a down season, but people need to remember where they live,” Chen said. “We live in the vulnerable area for hurricanes, so don’t take your chances.”