Predicting when, where and how many tropical storm systems will assail the U.S. mainland is similar to predicting when a slot machine will land on winning numbers. While hurricane forecasting has greatly improved, thanks to technology and the advancement of weather science, it all comes down to percentages.
In other words, whether a major hurricane will make landfall on the U.S. coast or whether a slot machine will hit the jackpot is not a question of whether it will happen or not, but when.
The difference in the two, of course, is considerable. When a slot machine hits the jackpot, the player is greatly rewarded. Not so with a hurricane. And the frequency that hurricanes form is more a sure bet than a slot machine jackpot.
For the hurricane season of 2017, which gets underway June 1 and runs through the end of November, forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Hurricane Prediction Center in Florida are calling for an above-average storm year, a warning to farmers on or near the Atlantic Seaboard or the Gulf of Mexico to be alert.
On average, climate history tells us that about 12 tropical systems develop in the Atlantic Basin each year and are strong enough to be assigned a name. Most tropical storms that are given names either fail to develop into major hurricanes, or simply dissipate at sea without creating damage and havoc on populated areas.
MORE HURRICANES EXPECTED
According to NOAA, this year could see as many as 17 named storm systems. Of those, NOAA predicts 5 to 9 could develop into hurricanes with 2 to 4 developing into major hurricanes. Where and if those storms will make landfall, no one knows.
It is important to note that while a hurricane, whether a category 1 or a category 5 storm, is still capable of causing extensive damage at time of landfall, especially if it roars on shore in populated areas. But it is also significant to note that even a tropical storm that has yet to reach wind speeds of 74 miles an hour to officially become a hurricane, is still capable of creating havoc at landfall, damaging property and even causing death of people and livestock in its path, either by storm surge or associated violent weather, including floods and tornadoes often are spawned by tropical systems.
NOAA forecasters say because of exceptionally warm waters expected this hurricane season, tropical systems that do form in the Atlantic Basin, the Caribbean or in the Gulf of Mexico could be abnormally strong. Either an ENSO-neutral or weak El Niño condition is expected to develop over the tropical Pacific Ocean. ENSO refers to El Niño/ Southern Oscillation, which has three phases: El Niño, Neutral, and La Niña. A La Niña system tends to increase storm activity in the Atlantic basin while an El Niño tends to create wind shear that helps to prevent tropical storm development.
In addition, near or above-average sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) across much of the Atlantic hurricane Main Development Region, which includes the tropical North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea between 9.5°N and 21.5°N latitude, can increase storm strength. In short, without a significant Neutral or El Niño southern oscillation to counter storm development, it may be a good year for favorable development of storms in the Basin, the Caribbean and the Gulf.
Regardless of the science behind storm prediction, it is fair to say based upon the majority of predictions by NOAA, university storm forecasters and the European Hurricane Forecast, farmers in areas subject to tropical weather should be aware of the heightened risk this year.
TROPICAL WEATHER AND AGRICULTURE
Farmers near the Atlantic or Gulf coasts are always aware of the dangers and risks involved in strong systems that make landfall and rush inland across farm country. And it's not just farms and ranches near the coast that can be affected. Serious storms can cause heavy rain events, including high winds and flooding, several hundred miles inland.
According to Science Direct, in recent decades numerous weather-and climate-related natural disasters have affected North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, repeatedly demonstrating how vulnerable local agriculture is to extreme episodic events. Given this recent history and expectations that the frequency and intensity of some episodic events will increase with climate change, it is becoming increasingly important for farmers to proactively manage weather and climate risks to protect their livelihoods.
Some farmers in these regions already apply various strategies to help reduce weather and climate risks and uncertainties, including farming in multiple locations, diversifying crops and varieties, seeking alternative sources of income, and purchasing adequate crop insurance.
RECENT HURRICANE DISASTERS FOR AGRICULTURE
In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated portions of Central America, causing tremendous flooding and numerous mudslides. At least 11,000 deaths and approximately $5 billion in damages were attributed to Mitch according to the NOAA National Climatic Data Center.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought high winds and a massive storm surge to the Gulf Coast of the United States, claiming more than 1800 lives and causing more than $125 billion in damage. Although much of the corn, rice, and soybeans in hurricane-affected states had been harvested prior to landfall, millions of chickens were killed, approximately $3 million in milk was lost due to electrical outages, and many barns, equipment buildings, fences, and machines were destroyed by the storm, according to USDA. Additionally, blocked waterways and damaged ports, bridges, and roadways significantly disrupted the transport of agricultural goods throughout hurricane-affected areas.
In 2008, Tropical Storm Fay, Hurricane Gustav, and Hurricane Ike all made landfall in Cuba between mid-August and early-September. The three storms combined to cause extensive damage across the island nation, and Hurricane Ike continued on to crash into the Texas-Louisiana coast, causing additional damages. High winds from the hurricanes lodged sugarcane, knocked maturing fruit off trees, uprooted many citrus trees, and damaged homes, greenhouses, and storage facilities. That same year Hurricane Dolly hit the lower Texas coast and destroyed most of the agriculture-rich cotton and grain crops of the region, and damaged fruit and sugarcane production.
In 2004, farmers in Florida saw much of their crop and livestock destroyed as Hurricanes Charley and Frances brought more than $2 billion in damage to annual crops. The overall crop and revenue loss was estimated at $6.4 billion.
These are but a few of the storms that have resulted in massive losses to farmers and livestock producers in recent times.
WHAT CAN FARMERS DO TO PREPARE FOR DISASTER?
Other than a good and substantial crop insurance program, there's not a lot farmers and livestock producers can do to defend against major hurricanes before they hit. Some work can be done to shore up farm structures like barns and homes, and securing items subject to high winds launching them and to damage structures is also a step to take before a storm hits.
But once a storm has damaged your farm, producers can do a number of things to minimize losses— from knowing and using safety rules for clean-up operations; salvaging crops, grains and feeds as possible; health maintenance for livestock and poultry; reconditioning equipment; and recovery of fields, orchards and groves when possible.
While vegetable growers can do little to prevent destruction of their crops, they can take a pro-active step towards disease prevention. Before the storm, farmers should make sure the proper fungicides have been applied. After the storm, they will need to address wind damage, and they will have to get back into their fields as quick as possible to assess the damage for reporting purposes.
Crop farmers need to be aware that managing weeds after flooding from a hurricane is important. According to a Florida State Disaster Handbook, in the year after a flood, new weed problems will be likely. Some of the weeds carried into the field by floodwaters may not have germinated in time to be noticed during the previous growing season. Mechanical and chemical methods need to be considered in both the flood year and subsequent years to manage weeds.
Concerning row crops, not a lot can be done to prepare for a hurricane. But peanut growers are advised to delay digging if the vines are healthy. Peanuts that have been plowed up are often blown around and many areas of the field may be flooded, which can cause peanuts to rot.
For cotton farmers, it is often not advisable to defoliate cotton 7 to 10 days before possible high winds since most defoliants are used with boll openers. As cotton opens, it becomes more susceptible to being blown out of the boll. Flood-damaged grains must be salvaged quickly because grain can begin to spoil within a few hours. Wet grain molds and heats up quickly, possibly resulting in spontaneous combustion. Farmers can remove dry grain and store it separately, but the best way to save wet grain is to get the grain to a commercial dryer quickly.
Livestock owners face very different issues than crop farmers. One of the most critical storm preparation actions is to make certain animals can be identified so that they can be traced back to owners. Ear and other types of identification tags are usually sufficient to determine ownership. If it possible to evacuate livestock before a storm hits, it is best to do so quickly and efficiently by planning in advance.
For livestock that must remain on the property, letting cattle out into a pasture is safer than putting them in a barn or other structure. Keep in mind that many livestock diseases are caused by standing water left over from heavy rains and floods, including Blackleg, Anthrax, and Foot Rot. If your fields or farm buildings have been flooded, take special precautions against flood-related diseases in poultry and livestock.