Hurricane season closes without a direct hit for Florida

The season’s strongest storm, Hurricane Dorian, had Florida in sight but turned north before making landfall. The storm decimated the Bahamas.
Hurricane Dorian left homes in ruin in the Bahamas.
Hurricane Dorian left homes in ruin in the Bahamas. [ FERNANDO LLANO | AP ]
Published Nov. 30, 2019

The 2019 Atlantic hurricane season officially ends today. After three consecutive years of being hit by a hurricane, Florida was spared this year from a direct strike.

RELATED: Read all the Tampa Bay Times’ hurricane coverage here

But that doesn’t mean the Sunshine State escaped entirely.

Record-breaking Hurricane Dorian held the state hostage for a week in August as Floridians and vacationers alike watched with anticipation as the storm stalled over the Bahamas, then took a turn north. The storm skirted the entire Atlantic coast, bringing high winds, storm surge and storm warnings from Florida to New England.

RELATED: Stunning shots of Hurricane Dorian from above, inside and below the storm

In all, the season finished with above-average activity. There were 18 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes, or storms that were Category 3 or stronger with sustained wind speeds of at least 111 mph.

An average season has about 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major storms.

Forecasters predicted early on that an El Niño would develop. El Niño is a phenomenon of warmer-than-average water in the tropical Pacific Ocean that creates strong wind shear over the tropical Atlantic. While the warmer water often means stronger Pacific hurricane seasons, El Niño’s effect on the Atlantic is that those winds tend to rip storms apart before they can coalesce into dangerous cyclones.

“Unfortunately El Niño didn’t develop," said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane scientist Gerry Bell, which left the tropical Atlantic vulnerable to hurricane formation.

RELATED: Strong hurricanes can produce “stormquakes” offshore, new study finds

The season started off slow but early. Subtropical Storm Andrea formed in the Atlantic in May before the June 1 official start of hurricane season.

The second storm came off the Florida Panhandle. Hurricane Barry began as thunderstorms over Kansas, according to the National Hurricane Center, then strengthened into a cyclone in the Gulf of Mexico south of Destin. It later circled back and barreled into the Louisiana coast.

It was one of five storms to form in the Gulf this year, tying a record. Bell said even though Gulf waters are extremely warm, up to 86 degrees — and hurricanes feed off warm water — there tends to be a lot of wind shear. Winds over the Gulf were down this year, he said.

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But the headline of the season was Hurricane Dorian. From its origins deep in the Atlantic Ocean, it eyed Florida. As it approached, wind models showed it traversing the state, and for days it seemed it might end up right on top of Tampa Bay.

Instead, the behemoth of a storm slowed to a near stop on top of the Bahamas, drowning it in surge and lashing it with wind.

It was the strongest storm on record to hit the island nation. It killed more than 60 people there, according to a government tally.

Then the storm turned north, sparing Florida the worst of it.

Even though the eye wall never touched the state, the storm had an effect. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a state of emergency for 26 counties. Some were even given mandatory evacuation notices. The storm also altered sporting events. The football game set in Jacksonville between Florida State University and Boise State University was moved, and the Rays chose to play a double-header at Tropicana Field so the storm wouldn’t cancel a game later in the week.

There were three hurricane-related deaths in Orange County, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

With no landfall, 2019 was the first year since 2016 that Florida wasn’t hit by a hurricane. Category 1 Hurricane Hermine made landfall in the Big Bend area in 2016, whipping up storm surge along the state’s Gulf Coast. In 2017, Hurricane Irma, the strongest storm ever recorded in the open Atlantic, made landfall in the Keys and on Marco Island as a Category 4. And last year, Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, the first Category 5 to the hit the continental U.S. since 1992 when Hurricane Andrew decimated Homestead, and the strongest ever recorded to hit the Panhandle.

RELATED: Census is yet another worry for Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael

In previous years, scientists debated whether the Atlantic remained in a period of hyperactivity that began in 1995. Bell said this season, with its high storm total, should close the book on that debate.

“There’s no indication that we’re out of it yet."