By Tamas Mondovics
with contributions from Michelle Colesanti
“Business is not as usual,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Warning Coordination Meteorologist Dan Noah as he talked about the current winter weather season.
Noah and the 25-member crew, including the 18 meteorologists at the National Weather Forecast Service Office in Ruskin, all work tirelessly to keep citizens both informed and protected through daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings and climate monitoring.
As Noah implied in his opening statement, keeping a close eye on the sky this winter season could not be me more applicable, thanks to the current record breaking El Niño event, which has reached its peak, while it became one of the strongest seen in decades, rivaling the 1997-98 season, triggering dangerous winter weather forecast for the region.
It is noteworthy that the World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners have predicted a major global increase in health consequences of emergencies this year due to El Niño.
A number of recent local weather events have already made headlines such as Hurricane Alex, the earliest hurricane in the North Atlantic since 1938 and the fourth January hurricane in 150 years of record-keeping.
Tampa Bay area residents have also experienced more frequent storms rolling through, one of which triggered last month’s EF2 tornado in Sarasota, causing an estimated $12 million in damage.
“El Niño is here, and we can expect to feel its effects such as tornadoes, record rainfall and flooding this winter in our area,” Noah said. “The question is what we can do to be prepared.”
Officials emphasized that El Niño-triggered winter storms are more dangerous due to the majority of them occurring overnight and early morning such as the January Sarasota storm. Most tornado deaths during El Niño have reportedly occurred between 11 p.m.-5 a.m.
Such was the case in the 1998 tornado outbreak that killed 42 in the Kissimmee area, and the deadly Lady Lake tornado of February 2, 2007.
With such statistics in mind, officials are urging residents this winter and early spring to ensure a way to receive severe weather alerts from the National Weather Service.
“A weather radio can alert you 24/7 to any weather hazards and can save your life during an overnight tornado event this winter,” Noah said.
While the current El Niño event is expected to weaken substantially or disappear altogether by the start of the hurricane season, it is not exactly good news for Floridians anticipating the 2016 hurricane season.
“The presence of El Niño as it was the case during the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season played a significant suppressing role,” Noah said. “The chance of a U.S. hurricane impact rises dramatically in a La Niña or neutral (neither El Niño nor La Niña) season compared to an El Niño season.”
Adding to the concern is Florida’s run of more than 10 years since its last hurricane impact (Hurricane Wilma in 2005), making it the longest hurricane-free streak for the Sunshine State in records dating to 1851.
According to NOAA meteorologist Paul Close from the Ruskin office, with being past due for a hurricane and conditions now ripe for a severe weather event, preparations have never been more vital.
“There’s no time to waste in developing a safety plan to protect you and your family from harmful weather,” Close said, adding that preparations should include the developing of a plan for what actions family members will take if severe weather threatens.
Assembling an emergency supplies kit, which may include food and water, a flashlight, and a first aid kit to name a few, should not wait until the hurricane season.
To avoid missing important warning information, it’s important to have at least three ways to obtain severe weather information.
“A NOAA Weather Radio, which broadcasts live, 24 hours day and night, will alert you to severe weather in the area,” Noah said, adding that local TV news channels, smartphone apps or cellular phones with Wireless Emergency Alerts can be well utilized.
For a detailed list of supplies, visit www.ready.gov/kit. For more information, visit www.srh.noaa.gov/tbw/.