Top Hurricane Season Headlines of 2016

Let’s face it — 2016 was weird. Maybe it was the proliferation of social media that let us into the weirdness of society. Maybe it was the weird election cycle. Maybe it was the proliferation of social media colliding with the weird election cycle. Whatever the reason, it sure felt weird.

2016 was unrelenting. Even the hurricane season fell victim. I wrote about the weird start to 2016 back in January. The area of low pressure I wrote about eventually became Alex. Hurricane Alex. In the Atlantic. In January.

And Hurricane Alex was just the beginning. There was another named storm before the traditional June 1st start of hurricane season (Bonnie). There was a tropical storm that formed over land (Julia). There was the third hurricane in two years to pass directly over the tiny island of Bermuda (Nicole). Then just last week, there was a near-Category 3 hurricane landfall on Thanksgiving Day, the latest hurricane landfall on record in the Atlantic (Otto).

It was, without question, a peculiar season. But among all of the oddities, 2016 left us with some lasting headlines. Below I’ve chosen my top five hurricane season headlines of 2016.

#5 Most active Atlantic hurricane season in at least four years

Early on in the hurricane season, there were signs in the tea leaves.

Wind shear (change in wind speed or direction with height) in June was noticeably lower than wind shear the two previous Junes. In the tropics, lower wind shear tends to favor storm formation.

Prior to June, hurricane season prognosticators had mostly called for average activity going into the season (though some outlets, including The Weather Channel’s forecast arm WSI, did forecast a slightly above average season). The two big wildcards for seasonal forecasters were 1. whether or not La Niña would materialize, the cooling of waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific, which is known to reduce atmospheric wind shear in the Atlantic (promoting storm development) and 2. whether circulation patterns in the atmosphere would keep tropical Atlantic waters cooler than average as forecast by some ocean models (discouraging the formation of strong hurricanes). The forecast of a La Niña but with a cooler than average tropical Atlantic ocean were at odds with each other.

As it turns out, Atlantic waters weren’t so cool this hurricane season (more on this in a minute).

La Niña did eventually materialize, albeit later and weaker than expected, and regardless of whether the budding La Niña played a major role, wind shear was the lowest in years throughout the Atlantic.

What resulted was an above average hurricane season, with 15 named storms, 7 hurricanes, and 3 Category 3 or stronger hurricanes. Five of the named storms made a U.S. landfall. These were the highest numbers since 2012 in the Atlantic, and it was the most muscly hurricane season (as measured by the Accumulated Cyclone Energy or ACE) since 2010.

#4 First Atlantic Category 5 hurricane in nine years

The muscly season produced some pretty muscly storms, including Hurricane Matthew, the first Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic ocean since Hurricane Felix in 2007.

Matthew was not only powerful, but long lived. It would stay a Category 4 or 5 hurricane for an incredible 102 hours (over four days), the longest an October hurricane has ever stayed so strong. It would also become the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Stan in 2005 (more on that shortly).

#3 Warmest Gulf of Mexico on record

The numbers don’t lie. It was a long, hot summer. According to NOAA, 2016 was the 5th warmest summer on record (of a 122-year record) across the lower 48. And those looking to escape the heat by taking a beach vacation to Galveston, Destin, or Clearwater Beach, didn’t find much relief in the water.

The Gulf of Mexico was on fire this hurricane season. It was far and away the warmest on record. I’d like to say there’s a close second somewhere, but there isn’t.

The warmth in the Gulf had consequences. It kept temperatures at night from getting very cool. New Orleans, for example, recorded 36 days this summer where nighttime lows never dipped below 80°F. That’s over a third of their summer! This also helped to make July their warmest July on record.

It also provided a ready fuel source for would-be tropical systems, like the nameless tropical system in August that dumped over two feet of rain across parishes just north and west of New Orleans, or enough rain to fill nearby Lake Pontchartrain four times over.

The flooding in Louisiana is estimated at $10 billion dollars, on par with many hurricanes, and one of the costliest U.S. disasters of the decade.

#2 First Florida hurricane landfall in over a decade

Florida is the most hurricane prone state in the Union. Like the warmth in the Gulf in 2016, there’s really no close second.

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It’s a state that on average experiences a hurricane landfall every other year. So it was a remarkable feat going into this season that it had been over 10 years since Florida last experienced a hurricane landfall — any hurricane landfall. Through August, that 10 year and 10 month hurricane drought was a record for the Sunshine State, shattering the old hurricane drought by a whopping 5 years. That was until the early morning hours of September 2nd, 2016.

Hurricane Hermine roared ashore along the Florida Panhandle about 30 miles southeast of the state capital of Tallahassee. Though we tracked the system for over two weeks through the Atlantic (remember “Invest” #99L?), Hermine didn’t find its stride until the hours leading up to landfall in Florida. The strengthening Category 1 hurricane packed a punch, knocking out power to more than 100,000 customers in the Tallahassee area, including the entire campus of Florida State University.

It was the most destructive hurricane Tallahassee had felt in over 30 years. Hermine also swamped the small coastal community of Cedar Key, Florida, with 6 feet of storm surge. The tide gauge in Cedar Key recorded the highest storm surge in its near continuous 102-year tidal record, eclipsing the likes of Category 3 Hurricane Easy from 1950 and Hurricane Elena of 1985.

#1 Deadliest and costliest U.S. hurricane since Sandy

Matthew was THE hurricane of 2016.

Even before it became Category 5 Hurricane Matthew, the forecast for Haiti was dire.

The flooding rains Matthew brought to Haiti devastated the island nation. Over 1,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives in Haiti alone, making Matthew the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Stan in 2005.

But Matthew wasn’t done. It chewed up the Florida east coast as it scraped the shoreline with strong winds and destructive waves. Though the worst winds and weather stayed just 20 to 30 miles offshore as it paralleled the coast, Matthew brought a considerable storm surge to northeast Florida, which flooded homes, washed out roads, eroded beaches, tore apart protective dunes, and carved new inlets along the coast.

Matthew’s footprint on the U.S. had only just started. The Category 4 hurricane near Florida weakened to a Category 3, then Category 2 as it brushed the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina before eventually making landfall as a Category 1 hurricane just north of Charleston. The resort town of Hilton Head, South Carolina, was especially hard hit.

But it was after landfall where Matthew left its deadliest mark on the U.S. Tropical moisture collided with an advancing cold front over North Carolina, producing tremendous rainfall atop grounds already saturated by earlier rains, including from Hermine a month earlier.

The heavy rainfall quickly filled streams and rivers, with downstream flooding lasting for weeks after Matthew had departed. Nearly 40 record flood stages were set in streams and rivers through the Carolinas and Florida per the USGS, with most of these records (28 of the 38) in North Carolina along the Tar, Neuse, Cape Fear, Lumber and Waccamaw River Basins. The dramatic pictures, heartfelt rescues, and headlines told the story.

All told over 40 people died in the U.S. from Matthew, the vast majority from drowning in North Carolina, with preliminary damage estimates at over $10 billion dollars. This makes Matthew both the deadliest and costliest U.S. hurricane since Sandy in 2012.

After a relatively quiet few years in the Atlantic, the 2016 hurricane season was a sobering reminder of the deadly and destructive nature of tropical systems, even the ones without enough organization to garner a name. It reminded us that flooding from rainfall is the most frequent killer of tropical systems, that hurricanes can happen even outside of the June to November hurricane season bookends, and that all droughts do eventually come to an end.

The 2017 hurricane season begins in 182 days.