Florida was in the grips of a deadly, economy-crushing pandemic this summer when another crisis loomed: Hurricane season. Meteorologists predicted a record number of Atlantic storms could form and come barreling toward land.
They were right: a record 30 named storms formed in 2020′s six-month storm season. Tropical systems formed faster, and grew stronger, like never before.
For the first time, five named storms churned in the Atlantic at the same time. The United States was hit by 12 named storms — the most in 104 years — and six were hurricanes. At one point, four of them took aim at the Sunshine State.
Yet somehow not one hurricane made landfall in Florida this year.
That isn’t to say the Sunshine State was unscathed. Tropical storms came ashore. There was death and damage. Those are the risks of living between the Atlantic and the Gulf.
But storm season’s greatest danger is a direct strike from a powerful hurricane, which can spend hours carving a path of wind-and-water fueled destruction as it roars onto land.
Still, how did they all miss Florida’s 1,350 miles of coastline this year?
Science explains some of that good fortune — but can’t explain all of it.
“It was really just luck at the end of the day,” said Colorado State University research scientist and hurricane forecaster Philip Klotzbach.
• • •
No state in the union has seen more hurricane landfalls than Florida.
Since 1851, the Sunshine State has been hit by 121 hurricanes and 37 major hurricanes, which are storms of Category 3 strength or greater, according to the National Hurricane Center. The next closest state is Texas, with 59 landfalls and 19 major storms.
This year, hurricanes hit Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. In fact, five named storms hit Louisiana. A hurricane hit Alabama for the first time in 16 years. For the first time, two monster storms formed in November — and both slammed into Nicaragua 13 days apart.
But four of the six hurricanes that hit the U.S. in 2020 all menaced Florida at some point, then veered away. Why was a state that is a historic lightning rod for hurricanes so fortunate?
One scientific explanation is that 10 of the 13 hurricanes that formed this year were spawned in the western Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, Klotzbach said. Storms from that region are more likely to threaten Louisiana and Texas. Florida is more susceptible to storms that form off the coast of Africa and head west toward the U.S.
“The storms that came off the coast of Africa developed but mostly died,” Klotzbach said. “We didn’t get any Hurricane Irma’s this year, these really long-tracked major hurricanes going all the way across.”
Tampa Bay residents keenly remember 2017′s Irma. It made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm and then knocked out power as it lashed the west coast.
Klotzbach said Irma is an example of a storm originating off the coast of West Africa — called a Cape Verde storm — that slowly gained strength over the Atlantic before striking. It is blamed for the deaths of more than 70 Floridians and causing at least $50 billion in damage.
This year, Hurricanes Laura and Isaias followed an Irma-like path, forming off the coast of Africa and then coming ashore in the U.S. But somehow each missed Florida.
Isaias hit the Bahamas as a Category 1 hurricane and was on track to hit South Florida. Instead, it weakened into a tropical storm and stayed offshore, brushing up against Florida’s east coast as it moved north over the Atlantic. It regained hurricane strength and hit the Carolinas on Aug. 4.
So not only did Isaias miss Florida, it didn’t even pass by as a hurricane.
A completely different scenario unfolded for Hurricane Laura later that month. It became a tropical storm on Aug. 21 and several models showed it threatening Florida as a hurricane. But meteorologists discovered its center was further south than initially believed, and the following forecasts showed it veering northwest, away from the west coast and Tampa Bay.
By Aug. 22, Florida was completely out of its path. Instead, it was Louisiana that was in the path of the Category 4 storm.
Laura and Isaias were examples of the luck that Klotzbach cited: Two back-to-back hurricanes veering away from Florida, each missing a different side of the state, in a matter 18 days.
• • •
To really assess Florida’s good fortune, rewind hurricane season back to the beginning.
Tropical Storm Fay killed six people in the U.S. — but didn’t become a tropical storm until after it passed over the Panhandle on July 5, crossed Georgia and entered the Atlantic.
Hurricane Sally was Florida’s closest call. It made landfall Sept. 16 in Gulf Shores, Ala. as a Category 2 hurricane, just a short drive away from Pensacola. Still, it dropped up to 30 inches of rain, flooded the Panhandle and left hundreds of Floridians in need of rescue.
Tropical Storm Eta took the most bizarre track toward Florida — or rather tracks. After devastating Central America as a major hurricane, it curved toward the Gulf of Mexico and approached Florida like a spinning top.
It made landfall as a tropical storm in the Florida Keys on Nov. 9, then re-entered the Gulf.
When Tampa Bay residents went to sleep on Nov. 10, they thought the tropical system would miss the region. But the next morning, the storm had shifted east and was now a Category 1 hurricane less than 100 miles off St. Petersburg Beach.
The rain and storm surge began almost immediately. By the end of the night, Eta had forced deputies to use high-water vehicles to rescue 33 people in Pinellas County. Flooding inundated areas around Tampa General Hospital. Bayshore Boulevard and the Tampa Riverwalk were both completely underwater.
But when Eta hit Florida a second time, this time in Cedar Key on Nov. 12, it had again weakened into a tropical storm.
That means the Sunshine State was hit twice by the same system, after it had weakened to tropical storm-strength, at two separate times — but not while it was a hurricane.
“Eta was in a path that was our worst-case scenario,” said Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Diane Kacmarik. “We were so lucky that it was only a tropical storm and was not very-well organized.”
It was also fortunate that Eta was a November storm, she said, meaning the atmospheric conditions “wasn’t nearly as prime for development.” That might have been different had Eta approached Tampa Bay in August, September or even October.
Still, all hurricane seasons inflict a toll. Talk of Florida’s fortunes must be weighed against the totality of the damage wrought by the 2020 storm season, which is blamed for killing more than 400 people and causing more than $40 billion in damage.
And yet, for all the records that fell in 2020, it wasn’t as destructive as the season it was most often compared to: The 2005 hurricane season, the most catastrophic on record.
There were 28 named storms that year, the record broken in 2020. But more seriously, there were four Category 5 hurricanes that year: Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
Those storms are why the 2005 storm season is blamed for causing more than 4,000 deaths and nearly $160 billion in damage across the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico and the U.S., according to USA Today. By comparison, this year’s only Cat 5 storm was Iota.
“From a U.S. perspective, we were hit a tremendous amount,” Klotzbach said. “But, thankfully, the damage and loss of life were much less than in 2005.
“Florida got lucky and the U.S. as a whole — from a damage perspective — got truly lucky, too.”