Florida escaped the record-breaking 2020 storm season without a single hurricane making landfall along its 1,350 miles of coastline.
That luck has some scientists particularly worried about the 2021 season, however. Though it’s expected to be a far cry from the record 30 named storms that formed last year, Colorado State University predicts there will be 17 named storms, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes in 2021.
Lead hurricane researcher Philip Klotzbach fears some Floridians won’t prepare as usual for this year’s storms after dodging so many in 2020.
Florida has been hit by 121 hurricanes and 37 major hurricanes since 1851 — by far the most of any state. With another eight hurricanes forecasted for 2021, it’s certainly possible that one or more will again find their way to the Sunshine State, Klotzbach said.
Colorado State scientists predict there is a 45 percent chance a major hurricane will strike Florida or the east coast, and a 44 percent chance of landfall anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to Texas along the Gulf Coast.
“Florida got really lucky last year given how many storms were out there,” Klotzbach said. “But now the big concern is that one of these storms is going to actually hit a major metropolitan area and cause massive amounts of damage.
“That’s especially the case for Tampa-St. Petersburg, which is so, so prone to storm surge.”
Colorado State is a leading hurricane forecaster, and its prediction dovetails with other important forecasts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts an above-normal storm season with 13 to 20 named storms, 6 to 10 hurricanes and 3 to 5 major hurricanes in 2021. Private forecaster AccuWeather calls for 16 to 20 named storms this year.
Klotzbach emphasized that a direct hit to Tampa Bay is an infrequent occurrence. In fact, 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the last hurricane to strike the region, the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane aka the 1921 Tarpon Springs Hurricane.
It reached the Tarpon Springs shore on Oct. 25 as a Category 3 storm generating maximum winds of up to 115 mph, killing six bay area residents, inflicting millions in damage and destroying that year’s citrus crop. It was the first major tropical cyclone to hit the region since the 1848 Tampa Bay Hurricane, aka the Great Gale of 1848.
The last storm felt in the region was in November, when Tropical Storm Eta made landfall at Cedar Key, just north of the bay area.
Eta caused flooding to inundate areas around Tampa General Hospital, the region’s only level-one trauma center. Water crept up the steps and into homes on Shore Drive E in Oldsmar, and also in St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres. The eastbound lanes of Bayshore Boulevard were more than four feet underwater.
It was a warning to Tampa Bay residents, Klotzbach said. A warning he hopes residents will take seriously ahead of this year’s season.
“If one of these storms were to actually hit the Tampa Bay area, it’s important to have a plan in place,” he said. “If you’re in a well-built house, you can likely hide from the wind. But you absolutely have to run from the storm surge. If emergency managers tell you to evacuate, you need to get out of there ASAP.”
So, how reliable are pre-season forecasts? Scientists’ prediction of an “extremely active” season proved catastrophically true last year. For 2021, Klotzbach said forecasts will grow more accurate the closer we get to July and the peak of hurricane season.
As of the beginning of May, Klotzbach said some conditions from a year ago are present again: warmer subtropical Atlantic waters and the absence of El Niño, which will make conditions favorable for storm development.
El Niño is a Pacific phenomenon that warms the waters there, creating strong wind shear over the tropical Atlantic that can disrupt storm formation. Its opposing weather pattern is La Niña, which is caused by cooler waters in the central and eastern Pacific and in turn significantly limits Atlantic wind shear.
The Pacific is currently in a weak La Niña event. There is a possibility of a shift to a neutral event ahead of the heart of hurricane season, Klotzbach said.
The neutral event would mean that “anything goes,” he said. The most destructive hurricane season in modern history, which included hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, came under a neutral event in 2005. By contrast, another neutral event occurred in 2013, which produced just two hurricanes for the entire season.
“There is a larger range of outcomes when we have neutral conditions,” Klotzbach said. “But it’s better news than having La Niña, which was a big reason the end of the 2020 hurricane season was so active.”
Other factors that affect storm seasons — such as the presence of a Bermuda high, the monsoon season in Africa and the presence of storm-suppressing Saharan dust — will have to be monitored after hurricane season starts June 1, Klotzbach said.
2021 Atlantic Tropical Cyclone Names
- Ana: Tropical Storm Ana formed May 23 in the north Atlantic and lost strength the next day.
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