Indecisive El Niño makes 2017 hurricane forecast bigger gamble

After building to a record-challenging virility in 2015,El Niño is playing coy this year, making the job of seasonal hurricane forecasting an even bigger gamble than normal.

Colorado State University storm expert Phil Klotzbach, who spoke Monday at the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans, said El Niño is sending signals that it could go either way — make an appearance by fall, or be a complete no-show.

Check The Palm Beach Post’s storm tracking map.

The intentions of the hurricane-repelling climate pattern are watched closely by meteorologists who know its presence is climatologically tied to below-average storm seasons, which is what Klotzbach is forecasting.

“In my view, it’s on a knife’s edge right now,” Klotzbach said about El Niño. “We need a moderate El Niño to really get a hurricane killer.”

The hurricane conference, which runs through Thursday, draws emergency managers, scientists and municipal leaders from hurricane-prone areas nationwide. It was last held in New Orleans in 2013.

Related: Two seasoned leaders gone for 2017 hurricane season

In addition to the popular seasonal forecast, delivered to a packed room of 120 at the Hyatt Regency, other topics Monday included how to get children involved in storm preparation and ways to communicate a sense of urgency with adults.

“Adults won’t react,” said Bob Breck, a former television meteorologist who now does consulting. “You can drill it over and over again and they won’t react unless their kid hits them over the head with it.”

That’s why New York City created the character Ready Girl – a superhero who speaks with children about having emergency “go-bags” and being prepared for hurricanes.

Related: Read full coverage of Hurricane Matthew in The Palm Beach Post

Creator Katelyn James said the character has become so popular that two actresses have been hired with grant money to help her with Ready Girl appearances. Ready Girl appeared at New York Comic Con and has partnered with Marvel for her own comic book.

“Spiderman is one of my emergency contacts,” James told participants in a public education workshop. “My biggest dilemma is how to answer the ‘Can you fly?’ question.”

This year’s conference comes as the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew approaches.

It was dark when Andrew hit South Florida Aug. 24, throwing debris and making noises people had never heard before. Ears popped. Glass shattered.

“And then you have Bryan Norcross, who is on the air, saying take a mattress and go into your bathroom and cover your head,” said Eric Salna, associate director of Florida International University’s Extreme Events Institute. “Debris is flying, and then people heard the horrific sounds of their roof being peeled off. They thought they were going to die.”

Bryan Norcross is a Weather Channel hurricane expert but was a local meteorologist in Miami during Andrew. He is credited with saving lives as he walked people through the storm.

Salna’s point was that storytelling is one way to talk to adults about storm preparation.

“Ask people if they’ve ever been in a storm and what it was like,” Salna said. “It’s very impactful.”

Hurricane Andrew happened during a weak El Niño year, proving the point forecasters always emphasize — it only takes one storm.

“A seasonal hurricane forecast is not a preparedness tool,” Klotzbach said.

During the super strong El Niño two years ago, the tropical Atlantic spun up 11 named storms with no Florida landfalls.

This past year, during a La Niña, there were 15 storms, including Hurricane Hermine, which came ashore in Florida’s Panhandle and Category 5 Hurricane Matthew, which could have devastated South Florida if its eye wobbled 60 miles west instead of jogging east.

To kick off an El Niño this year, Klotzbach said strong westerly winds are needed over the Pacific to blow a buildup of warm waters near Indonesia toward South America. The shift in water temperatures changes thunderstorm patterns, which affects upper-air wind flow in a way that shreds hurricanes in the Atlantic.

The Climate Prediction Center is giving El Niño a 50 percent chance of developing by late summer or fall. With that, Klotzbach is predicting 11 named storms, four hurricanes and two major hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher.

He’ll issue a revised hurricane forecast June 1.

“Nobody can tell you that there will be no hurricanes or that this year they won’t impact you,” said Craig Fugate, former Florida emergency manager and FEMA director under President Barack Obama. “All the seasonal forecasts, all that nonsense, comes down to the basic fact that storms happen, storms make landfall, and you are either prepared or not.”

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