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How damaging will hurricane season be?

Property and Casualty Insurance
by Jan DeClue
How damaging will hurricane season be?
How damaging will hurricane season be?

Along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, states are always at risk of being pummeled with a damaging tropical storm or hurricane, but 2020 in particular seems like it will be on track to be one of the busiest hurricane seasons yet. Already, a number of named storms have made landfall and done damage ranging between hundreds of thousands of dollars on the low end, and potentially billions for more calamitous storms.

Back in May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected there was a 60% chance this year's hurricane season would be busier than usual, and it looks like that prediction is on track to obliterate even higher-end expectations. Originally, NOAA said it was expecting between 13 and 19 named storms, six to 10 of which were likely to become hurricanes. Of those, between three and six were expected to be major hurricanes.

At the time this prediction was made, Arthur was the first named storm to emerge, and hurricane season typically stretches from the start of June to the end of November. Many people are familiar with NOAA's naming convention for storms, with 21 names set aside at the start of the season (all based on first names of different letters, progressing alphabetically). Given how busy the hurricane season has been, that standard did not meet NOAA's needs.

Storm surges accompanied a number of major storms making landfall this year.Storm surges accompanied a number of major storms making landfall this year.

A significant issue
Indeed, the number of named storms had already run its course with more than two full months remaining in the traditional season; NOAA is now on to its backup plan of naming storms "Alpha," "Beta," and so on. According to The Washington Post, this is only the second time in history this has occurred, and nine storms have made landfall so far this year, tying a record set in 1916. All told, 90% of the shoreline along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts had been under at least a tropical storm warning.

As of Sept. 23, there had been 23 named storms, getting to that record number almost a full month before the all-time record set on Oct. 22, 2005. At that time, three named storms — Wilfred, which rounded out NOAA's list of names; as well as Alpha and Beta — were active, the first time that has ever happened.

The good news is that while storms are likely to be far more common this year than in 2005, they aren't doing as much damage. That previous record year saw two Category-5 hurricanes make landfall, with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita battering the Gulf Coast and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. So far in 2020, only Hurricanes Laura and Teddy reached Category 4, and Paulette and Sally barely approached Category 3.

Crunching the numbers
However, even those relatively muted storms were still devastating. Experts believe that Laura alone caused 10 or more deaths in Louisiana and Texas, while also doing damage estimated to range between $4 billion and $12 billion, National Public Radio reported. This largely came because of luck, though, as Laura made landfall relatively far from large population centers, while more damaging storms of the past few decades like Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey crushed major cities New Orleans and Houston, respectively.

Moreover, those storms both lingered over the cities they hit, whereas Laura continued to move inland, losing power as it did so. But because it went inland, it also caused damage to a significant number of properties: an estimated 625,000. While a small fraction of that came when the storm was still pushing winds hard enough to be Category 3, between 111 and 129 miles per hour, many of those 10,000 were seriously affected. Those along the coast were hit with storm surges of between 9 and 12 feet, below what forecasters originally anticipated, but still significant enough to cause damage that could take months to fully assess.

Likewise, the Insurance Journal reported that multiple industry observers estimated Hurricane Sally, which mostly hit Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida Panhandle, caused losses of between $1 billion and $3 billion. Sally, a Category-2 storm, saw sustained wind speeds of 105 miles per hour when it made landfall, with storm surges of 6 to 7 feet. It then slowed to tropical-storm levels as it advanced into Florida, with wind speeds closer to 80 miles per hour.

While it may be some time before the full extent of these losses are understood, it's important for insurers to stay in touch with affected policyholders and make every step of the process clear. That way, when homeowners inevitably have questions or issues, they can get the most straightforward explanation possible — and have one less thing to worry about in these trying times.



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