Hurricane Season Ramping Up Along Southeast Coast

This is it, the days surfer Blue Spivey looks forward to all winter. The days he can go online and watch those big, long swells rolling across the Atlantic Ocean like they do all year out in California.

You’ve got to be ready to roll, he said. He’ll toss a couple of surfboards and a towel into his Honda and just go. It’s nothing for the 40-year-old James Island resident to drive six hours down the coast for two hours in the surf.

An East Coast surfers’ dream, he said, is to ride those huge swells coming in ahead of hurricanes, from Florida all the way back north.

This year they might get a very good chance at it.

A federal forecaster last week called for more hurricane activity ahead for the rest of the season and he didn’t mince words, saying the next few months could be extremely active.

That might well mean a lot more than big swells for the Southeast and South Carolina, where conditions are rife for more tropical cyclones – a sort of junior severe storm – to a significant hurricane.

The Atlantic basin has moved into the Cape Verde period, the two months when storms off the coast of West Africa can spin into powerful hurricanes crossing the Atlantic, threatening disastrous damage on the Southeast coast.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lead seasonal forecaster Gerry Bell compared conditions in the Atlantic to the 2010 season, when 21 tropical cyclones not yet of full hurricane strength formed. More than half of them became hurricanes, including five “major” hurricanes with catastrophically damaging winds of more than 110 mph.

At least four of those storms passed offshore South Carolina, or headed to it at one point, with winds of at least 130 mph.

Historically, nine of every 10 hurricanes occur after Aug. 10, said Phil Klotzbach of the Tropical Meteorology Project.

Devastating Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 was a Cape Verde storm. It made landfall just north of Charleston with 135 mph winds.

This year, the so-called Bermuda high with its hurricane-steering winds is weakening and shifting back and forth. That could nudge cyclones toward us or away from us. Since spring, though, the waters offshore the Southeast have been plenty hot enough to spin up cyclones, forecasters agree.

That ramps up the chance of a tropical cyclone – or even a thunderstorm – strengthening to a hurricane just offshore.

“At this stage of the game, I find myself focusing more time and effort on the individual `could be’ features because the set-up off the U.S. southeast coast could get a tropical cyclone spun up quickly close to the beach,” said Mark Malsick, the S.C. Climate Office severe weather liaison.

“High pressures building down from the north can help spawn `home grown’ tropical cyclones along tail ends of cold fronts over our ripe waters,” said meteorologist Shea Gibson of WeatherFlow, a Charleston-based company.

Even a relatively “weaker” storm can wreak havoc. A year ago in October, Matthew scraped up the coast as a minimal hurricane, but did more than $100 million in damage. It tore up beaches and damaged buildings from Hilton Head Island to Myrtle Beach. It flooded entire towns along coastal rivers, some of which are still struggling to recover.

Bell said the dominant factors stirring hurricanes all are in place in the tropical Atlantic this year, including favorable winds and much warmer-than-average water. Cape Verde storms started spinning up earlier than expected – the first one, Tropical Storm Bret, in mid-June.

“What we’ve seen this season so far is three named storms have formed in this region,” Bell said.

In 2010, Hurricanes Danielle and Earl passed offshore South Carolina within a week of each other in late August through September – Danielle tracking for landfall before turning, Earl passing 300 miles out to sea with 135 mph winds.

“Uncomfortably close,” Malsick said at the time.

Earl would go on to do nearly $4 million damage in North Carolina without making landfall, among nearly $45 million damage from the Caribbean islands to Massachusetts.

They were followed offshore by Hurricane Igor, peaking at 150 mph winds, and Hurricane Julia, peaking at 135 mph winds – both of which spun up at the same time.

Those storms stayed out to sea because the Bermuda high persisted just offshore. If the high had hung up over the Tennessee Valley, or moved farther east in the Atlantic, the two storms could have been driven one after the other into the Southeast coast.

It’s that time of year. Know your vulnerabilities, said Brock Long, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator.

“As we enter the height of hurricane season it’s important for everyone to know who issues evacuation orders in their community, heed the warnings, update their insurance and have a preparedness plan,” he said.