This summer has seemed an endless march of devastating climate disasters, from wildfires to droughts to floods to landslides. And, in case you forgot to worry about hurricanes, we’re moving into peak Atlantic storm season. There are currently three systems spinning the basin, with two in the process of making landfall in Florida and Haiti.
Tropical Storm Fred and Tropical Depression Grace aren’t monsters in terms of punishing winds, but they pack serious rainfall that could lead to flooding as they make landfall. In Haiti’s case, that could be dire given the nation is reeling from an earthquake over the weekend and being hit by Fred last week.
The center of Tropical Depression Grace, is currently centered over the southwest tip of the Dominican Republic as of late Monday morning. From there, it will continue along the Haitian coastline and could make landfall later on Monday in the far western portion of the country.
Grace only has maximum sustained winds of 35 miles per hour (56 kilometers per hour), making it substantially less powerful than Fred to the north. But the National Hurricane Center warned that Grace could bring 5 to 10 inches (13 to 25 centimeters) of rain over both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Some areas could see as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain, though. The NHC warned that the heavy rain could lead to “flash and urban flooding, and possible mudslides.” That rain will fall on soils that, in some cases, are already saturated from rainfall when then-Tropical Depression Fred steered over the island in the middle of last week.
These conditions could be especially dangerous in Haiti, following a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on Saturday that killed nearly 1,300 people and injured thousands more. The quake destroyed 13,694 homes and damaged another 13,785, leaving many to sleep out in the streets, fields, or in hastily constructed shelters. The earthquake triggered landslides that blocked roads, making support and rescue to the affected area difficult. Hospitals have been filled to the brink as rescue teams have resorted to going door-to-door to look for survivors. The heavy rain will compound an already dire humanitarian disaster, and could make rescue operations that much more challenging.
“I am worried about the upcoming storm as it can complicate the situation for us,” Jerry Chandler, the head of Haiti’s civil protection agency, said Sunday.
Tropical Storm Fred poses a threat further north in the Gulf of Mexico. The storm dumped rain over Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Wednesday and Thursday. As it moved over mountainous terrain, it lost steam and weakened to a tropical depression.
But Fred picked up some last-minute intensity this weekend as it approached Florida, fed partially by the warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. It has since been upgraded back to a tropical storm. Fred now has maximum sustained winds of 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour) and was 80 miles (125 kilometers) to the southwest of the town of Apalachicola, Florida. There’s a possibility that it could make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane.
But as with Grace, Fred’s biggest threats will be water. Parts of Florida could see what the NHC calls“dangerous” storm surge of up to 5 feet (1.5 meters). In Panama City, which lies along the Gulf of Mexico in the northwest part of the state just a short distance away from Apalachicola, schools and some government offices were closed on Monday, while sandbags were made available at a city park.
Heavy rain is also likely, with up to a foot expected in the Florida Panhandle. Lesser totals could pile up in Alabama, Georgia, and other parts of Florida, but the rainfall could still lead to “flash, urban, small stream and isolated river flooding impacts,” according to the NHC. Flash flood warnings are in effect that cover 10 million people in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.
“We’ve certainly been in a lot worse than this, but that’s no reason to be complacent,” Panama City Sheriff Tommy Ford said during a Sunday press conference. “The less people out on the road, the better. We do expect some heavy rain from this storm.”
City officials clarified that they didn’t expect evacuations to be needed for Fred, but urged people to exercise caution regardless.
“(We’ve) got to remember Panama City Beach (is) basically an island,” Councilman Phil Chester said at the press conference. “I don’t think we should underestimate any storm that gets in that Gulf. We say how (Hurricane) Michael spun up very fast. We should prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
There’s a third storm brewing in the Atlantic as well. As of Monday morning, Tropical Depression Eight hadn’t yet earned an alphabetical name—a storm needs to reach tropical storm status to get one of those—but it was churning out on the ocean just south of Bermuda. It should become the eighth named storm of the season later on Monday, getting the name of Henri. There are tropical storm watches up on Bermuda, but thankfully Henri is expected to skirt south of the island and then hook north well out to sea. It’s nothing to worry about for now, but good to keep an eye (get it) on.
This week’s rush of storms is a reminder that this hurricane season is expected to be particularly—and unfortunately—busy. The season began early and has already seen its first hurricane in Elsa. But we’re just now entering into the peak of hurricane season when the ocean warm up even further. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration actually updated its outlook earlier this month to predict 15 to 21 named storms and 7 to 10 hurricanes—a bump up from numbers the agency released in May, which predicted 13 to 20 named storms and 6 to 10 hurricanes, already an “above average” prediction.
“After a record-setting start, the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season does not show any signs of relenting as it enters the peak months ahead,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a statement. “NOAA will continue to provide the science and services that are foundational to keeping communities prepared for any threatening storm.”
This comes after NOAA bumped up the “average” number of hurricanes in a season to reflect a decade of new data. The increase in the number of hurricanes reflects the reality that climate change is heating up the ocean, allowing more storms to form and strengthen, and better observing technology.