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Cape Officials Prepare For 'Worst' As Forecasts Warn of Busy Hurricane Season

In 1991 Hurricane Bob was the last large hurricane to hit Cape Cod.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season may be extremely busy, producing six to ten hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or higher.


The forecast, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center, is one of several recent reports that call for as many as 13 to 19 named storms with 60 percent confidence.


“This last report makes these predictions more dire,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center.

An average season produces no more than 12 named storms and six hurricanes. 


The predicted increase is, at least in part, is due to warmer-than-average surface water temperatures. Greenhouse gases produced by human activity and manufacturing are trapped in the ocean, where heat builds up. 


“So all that warm water means that when a storm does form, it has that much more energy to draw from,” Francis said. “Warm water is what hurricanes use to fuel themselves.” 


The other important factor has to do with the fact that no El Niño is expected to form in the Pacific Ocean this year. 


“When there’s an El Niño it would tend to create wind patterns over the Atlantic that tend to keep storms from forming or rip storms apart,” Francis added. 


Hurricane season officially runs from June to November, and local officials are warning the coronavirus could make preparation and response more difficult. 


“We hope for the best, but we always prepare for the worst,” said Andrew Platt, emergency preparedness specialist for Barnstable County.


“Even if it’s not forecast to be a busy hurricane season, even if there’s only one main hurricane the entire year in the entire Atlantic Ocean, if that one hurricane hits us, then it’s a busy hurricane season for us,” he said. 


This year, Platt is considering how different emergency response will need to be when it comes to first responders safety, evacuation, and sheltering. 


“We can’t rely on putting everyone on a gym in cots,” he said. “We’re gonna need to talk about [whether] we put lower risk people in the gym and use more classrooms and things like that for people of higher risk or who might be symptomatic. I mean, they still need a place to go.” 


At any of the six regional shelters across the Cape, Platt can imagine regular health screenings. Evacuees would be asked how they’re feeling, their temperature would be taken, and they could even be supplied with a COVID-19 test if they’re showing symptoms of the virus.  


Before it gets to that point, Platt recommends people gather enough clean drinking water and basic food to last a few days. 


Arguably more important, he says, is planning evacuation routes and effective communication strategies with family. 


Still, one of the greatest challenges this year will be finding volunteers for regional shelters. Many local volunteers are retirees who might not feel safe coming out this year, Platt said. 


In a phone interview, Platt encouraged any Cape Cod residents who are able to join partner organizations like the Red Cross, Disaster Animal Response Team, or the medical reserve corps. 


“The ability for us to spread out and potentially use more facilities or use more of a facility that we already have is going to come down to the amount of staffing that we have from those partner agencies that provide volunteers," he said.


It’s been almost a decade since hurricanes like Sandy and Irene inflicted damage across the region, and it’s been even longer since a major hurricane tore through Massachusetts. 


But Francis says we shouldn’t let our guard down. The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Outlook comes on the heels of another NOAA report that found climate change has made hurricanes stronger and more frequent over the last four decades. 


The chance of a major hurricane hitting New England is increasing, she said. 


“As the oceans warm it means that if a hurricane does come up the coast in our direction, the water is warmer so it can maintain its tropical characteristics longer,” she said, “Which means once it does get to New England it probably will be a stronger storm.”   




Check out our series about preparing for a hurricane here

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.