An early hurricane forecast from Colorado State University calls for a below-average 2017 storm season, but was released on a day when the atmosphere reminded Florida of its impulsive and destructive nature.
A line of thunderstorms ahead of a cold front spawned a possible tornado in Okeechobee County on Thursday morning that destroyed two homes, damaged up to 16 structures and injured one person who was trapped briefly under a car that flipped over in the high winds.
Four recreational vehicles were also destroyed in the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, said Okeechobee County Sheriff spokeswoman Michele Bell.
“These homes are leveled and devastated,” Okeechobee Sheriff Noel Stephen said during a news conference Thursday as damages were still be assessed.
The National Weather Service office in Melbourne is sending a team to investigate the area today to determine whether there was a tornado. Forecasters had issued a tornado warning at 9:52 a.m. that lasted until 10:45 a.m.
The damage wrought in Okeechobee County underscores a postscript hurricane forecasters add to their predictions every year — that even in a slow season, it only takes one storm to wipe out a community.
“I think there are a lot of people in Florida that have not experienced a full blown hurricane and need to understand that you always prepare for the worst,” said AccuWeather hurricane expert Dan Kottlowski.
AccuWeather released its 2017 hurricane forecast Wednesday, which also called for a below-average storm season. Hurricane season runs June 1 through November.
Both AccuWeather and CSU are basing their forecasts on early predictions that El Niño may reappear this year. The global climate pattern, marked by a warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, works against hurricanes. Its west-to-east wind pattern can shred storms as they develop in the Atlantic basin.
Led by hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach, CSU is predicting 11 named storms, four hurricanes and two major hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher.
AccuWeather’s forecast includes 10 named storms, five hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
An average hurricane season based on 30 years of climatology consists of 12 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.
Klotzbach said early forecasts are always difficult, but that this year is especially tricky because of the El Niño wildcard.
“April predictions are never super confident, but this year I’m a little less confident given the El Niño issue,” said Klotzbach, who released the report at the National Tropical Weather Conference in South Padre Island, Texas. “If El Niño does ramp up, that will make for a more quiet hurricane season.”
Computer models have hinted at an El Niño since at least December, but its appearance would be unusual because it would be on the heels of the strong El Niño that occurred in 2015-2016.
“We really shouldn’t be getting another one already,” Klotzbach said.
And there’s something else strange about the developing El Niño. It’s evolving in an east-to-west pattern in the Pacific when it usually moves from west to east, sending warm water from Indonesia toward South America, Klotzbach said.
“There is some consensus that this will be a weak-to-moderate, El Niño and if that works out, it will be a lower-than-normal season,” Kottlowski said. “But because we still have warm water in the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Atlantic, that will still give us enough support for development.”
CSU’s forecast also considers the probabilities of at least one major hurricane making landfall in the U.S. The chances for a hurricane to hit the East Coast, including the Florida peninsula, are 24 percent this season, below the average for the last century of 31 percent.
For the Gulf Coast, including the Florida Panhandle, the chances are 24 percent, below the average of 30 percent.
The 2017 hurricane season was the most active since 2012 with 15 named storms and seven hurricanes, including Category 1 Hurricane Hermine. Hermine broke a more than decade-long hurricane drought in Florida when it made landfall in the Panhandle in September.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center is scheduled to release its 2017 hurricane forecast on May 25. AccuWeather and CSU will also update their forecasts closer to June 1.