Saturday marks the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, the annual rite of anxiety for the privilege of living in Florida. While forecasters predict an average season, Hurricane Michael in October showed there's nothing normal about these storms and nothing easy about recovering from them. Floridians should use these first few days to take advantage of a sales tax holiday for essential supplies, and to map out their family's hurricane plan. Preparing now will ease the stress when those storm tracks start appearing.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict the upcoming season will be about average. The agency's forecast calls for nine to 15 named storms and four to eight hurricanes, of which two to four are expected to be major hurricanes, with sustained wind speeds at least 111 mph. That constitutes a normal season, which brings 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes. The government's outlook is slightly higher than that of Colorado State University, another respected forecaster, which called for a slightly below average season, with 13 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes. Colorado State's forecast, though, falls within the government's predicted range, providing some degree of consensus about what the season will look like.
Forecasters say there are competing factors this hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. The Atlantic Ocean shows no signs of cooling off, signaling it remains in a period of hyperactivity that began in 1995. Warmer waters create a breeding ground for hurricane development. There's also the El Niño, warmer-than-average water in the Pacific Ocean that tends to shift activity to that side of the globe. And El Niño creates wind shear over the tropical Atlantic, where most hurricanes form, and those high winds tend to rip storms apart and tamp down hurricane activity.
The bottom line: There is still uncertainty, especially this far out. That's why planning early is essential. Trim back tree limbs. Start setting aside small amounts of cash for an emergency fund - bank machines won't work when the power is out - and put a can or two of nonperishable food on your routine shopping list. Check your flood and evacuation zones. Put copies of property insurance policies and other important documents in a to-go box. Check prescriptions, make emergency plans for family members and pets and exchange information with neighbors. These small tasks can be overwhelming when a storm is only a day or two away.
Florida's sales tax-free holiday for emergency supplies began Friday and runs to midnight Thursday. This is a good time to stock up on the basics, from batteries and gas cans to radios, tarps, flashlights and coolers. While there are dollar limits on the sale of individual items, the tax break covers all essentials, and it should accommodate anyone looking to outfit an average home. For a complete list of qualifying items, check the Florida Department of Revenue web site at floridarevenue.com.
Florida has been a target three years in a row: by Category 1 Hermine in the Big Bend area in 2016, by Category 4 Irma when it hit the Keys in 2017 and last year by Category 5 Michael in the Panhandle. The lesson is clear: Residents of the coastal state need to be prepared - and that preparation must start long before the peak of hurricane season.