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Hurricane season began on June 1, and folks along the Florida Gulf Coast were drenched by Tropical Storm Debbie, the fourth named storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. That disaster took took a back seat when a superstorm, or derecho (pronounced Day-Ray-Cho) traveled 650 miles — from Chicago to the Atlantic — in roughly 12 hours, creating widespread damage and millions of power outages. But, will these high winds come to a grinding halt later this summer if NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) predictions about El Niño are correct? We’re adding our own perspective on these weather issues, especially about how they pertain to your safety and your boat.

El Niño

Tracks of major (category 3, 4, or 5 at maximum strength) hurricanes in the East Atlantic, West Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico during hurricane seasons that followed El Nino Modoki winters, between the years 1990 and 2005.According to NOAA’s diagnostic discussion, a new El Niño is scheduled to begin sometime between July and September. For North America, this transition usually means fewer Atlantic hurricanes and relief for the Southwestern drought conditions as Pacific waters warm significantly. Here are some historic issues from previous El Niño systems that you might expect from coast to coast:

  1. The waters along southern and mid-Pacific coasts during an El Niño usually are too warm to sustain small fish, which larger fish require. As if to prove this theory, in 1997, skipper Mike Halbert and fishing partner Dick Miller landed the first recorded catch of a striped marlin off the Washington coast while fishing for tuna during an El Niño. Anglers usually find marlin in Mexican or southern California waters, so this catch was exhibited as an example of warming Pacific waters and its effect on coastal fisheries.
  2. El Niño encourages more hurricanes and large storms in the eastern Pacific that have triggered floods and mudslides. A 2010 storm during an El Niño forced evacuations.
  3. At the same time, the northern Pacific coast might experience more stable air near ground and water levels; however, in the absence of wind or storms, that air can collect and create fog or stagnant air with high pollutant levels.
  4. The Gulf Coast typically experiences below-normal temperatures during this weather cycle in the winter season. Florida also receives more rain than normal during an El Niño, and this effect extends to other southern states of the U.S. and into Mexico.
  5. As a result of increased precipitation, larger amounts of freshwater runoff could enter local estuaries. Inshore coastal areas influenced by this runoff often experience below average salinity levels, which may have undesirable impacts on local marine life. On the positive side, increased rainfall can recharge aquifers and restore lake and stream water levels.
  6. Southern snow can hinder travel and boating. Over the holiday season during the 2009/2010 El Niño, Dallas, Texas observed its first Christmas Eve snowfall on record.
  7. The track of storms across the southern tier of the country and then up the Atlantic seaboard is typical of an El Niño.
  8. If you live in the northern tier of the lower 48 or in southern Alaska, you may experience above-normal temperatures during the fall and winter. As a result, the Great Lakes region may experience less snowfall this upcoming winter.

Boaters along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard may breathe a small sigh of relief about the El Niño news, because the NOAA discussion points to warming in eastern Pacific waters. If the central Pacific heats up, that’s a different matter altogether, as the weather pattern then becomes an El Niño Modoki (after the Japanese term meaning “similar, but different”). This weather pattern pushes the warming of the Pacific to the west, and appears to shift Atlantic cyclones to the west as well, resulting in more hurricanes making landfall on the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricanes

Hurricane IsabelUnlike the El Niño, where forecasting is broad as well as new, residents in the path of a hurricane at least have time to prepare for possible landfall. Boaters, especially, should check with local resources and boat owners to learn how they handle tropical storm emergencies. For instance, in Biloxi, Mississippi, you may be instructed to bring your boat ashore or to take it around to the “Back Bay,” a body of water sheltered by Biloxi near D’Iberville. Another example includes emergency plans for boat owners established by Pinellas County, Florida.

If you dock your boat at a marina, please learn what your marina contract entails. You may share responsibility with a marina if a boat is ripped from a dock and damages the structure or other boats. If you learn that you may be partially responsible for those repair costs, you might take measures to remove your boat before a storm arrives. Here are some other tips:

  1. Unlike Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel, you don’t need to remain in the path of the storm. If an incoming storm presents real and immediate danger, remove yourself from the area. Your boat may or may not survive, but you may.
  2. Hurricanes are – for the most part – unpredictable in strength and on landfall precision. These systems consist of numerous storms that contain their own volatile actions, including the ability to produce tornadoes. Be prepared well in advance of tropical storm season, including documenting everything related to your prized possession. Keep that documentation, including photographs, receipts, and insurance papers in a safe place somewhere outside the possible storm path. A bank safety deposit box located inland might be a good choice.
  3. According to the Beaufort wind force scale, tropical storm strength winds (just under hurricane strength and rated as “violent”) are sustained winds between 56-63 knots, or 64-75 mph. Even if winds do not exceed this speed, loose objects can become flying missiles. If you’re constantly operating under Murphy’s Law, that flying object will strike your boat. If you have time to move your boat inland, make sure your trailer is in excellent condition well before tropical storm season, and get out of harm’s way before evacuation traffic makes your life even more miserable.
  4. If you don’t live near where you dock your boats, think twice about asking a friend or representative from a marina to ensure the safety of your boat. Strange things happen to people when faced with strong storms. They begin to think of themselves and their own safety first. Even if a person is devoted to you, think about what you’re asking that person to do.
  5. The stronger the storm, the higher the storm surge. Jim Cantore can tell you that Hurricane Katrina brought more damage from water than from winds along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Entire neighborhoods were wiped out, and the boats – no matter how well tethered – did not survive.

Even with safety and emergency measures in place, don’t count on seeing that boat again after a category five hurricane unless you bring it inland. Some people stayed with their boats in Biloxi’s Back Bay during Hurricane Katrina, and they lost their boats and their lives. Category five storms are rare, but we strongly advise that you regard any tropical system with respect.

Derechos

2012 DerechoThe derecho is not new, but it is a rare and deadly storm that cannot be forecast quickly enough to provide boaters adequate warning. The storm that occurred on June 29th entered the Atlantic Ocean shortly before 2:00 a.m. EDT on June 30, producing winds as high as 81 mph along the New Jersey coast and along the Delmarva Peninsula. Numerous special marine warnings were issued for the coastal waters by the NWS as the derecho moved out to sea. Falling trees caused the majority of fatalities during this storm, but at least one fisherman died when his boat capsized. Boats sunk, and many were ripped from their moorings along the Atlantic coast.

Living along the water is a dream for boat owners, but it does come with its dangers. If you have questions about how to handle your boat during deadly storms, learn about local guidelines first and then learn how other boat owners in your area handle emergencies. If you have any questions about your boat insurance, contact one of our agents today.

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