It was 6:30am on Friday, September 12th, 2008, and my alarm had just gone off. My normal grogginess was unapparent as I hurried out of bed and made my way to my desk in my apartment. I logged in to my computer as fast as I could not knowing what to expect, but, before looking at one bit of weather data, I pulled up a webcam that looked down onto the Strand District of Galveston Island and was immediately shocked and whirled into disbelief. Storm surge from Galveston Bay was already up to the top of the nearly two-foot high curbs near 25th street in front of the Railroad Museum. I jumped out of my chair and ran back to my room to get my phone. As I fumbled to start dialing my Dad’s number, my wife asked what was wrong.
“There’s already storm surge up to the sidewalks on the strand, it’s bad! Call your parents now, they have to leave,” I exclaimed.
My phone was ringing as I made my way back to the computer, and my Dad picked up the phone right as I sat back down. He was just waking up too, and the first words I said to him were, “Y’all have to leave, right now!”
I had his attention and I told him what I was seeing. Omaha, Nebraska was home for me at the time, but, as a meteorologist, and Galveston Island native, I knew it was going to be bad. Storm surge readings were already at 4-5 feet in Alabama, 2-4 feet in Galveston and increasing, and Ike’s massive wind field was only expanding and gathering up more water to dump onto the shores of the upper Texas coast, perhaps three times as much! To many coastal Texans a category 1 or 2 storm was generally (and incorrectly) considered a “No Big Deal” situation, but Ike was very different.
Then I read my Dad the excerpt from the 4am Update by the National Hurricane Center…
COASTAL STORM SURGE FLOODING OF UP TO 20 FEET ABOVE NORMAL TIDE LEVELS…ALONG WITH LARGE AND DANGEROUS BATTERING WAVES…CAN BE EXPECTED NEAR AND TO THE EAST OF WHERE THE CENTER OF IKE MAKES LANDFALL…EXTENDING A GREATER THAN USUAL DISTANCE FROM THE CENTER DUE TO THE LARGE SIZE OF THE CYCLONE. SURGE FLOODING OF UP TO 25 FEET…AND POSSIBLY HIGHER…COULD OCCUR AT THE HEADS OF BAYS.
20-25 Feet? My stomach sank… Galveston had not experienced a surge like that since, well, 1900.
Ike was a huge storm that seemed to cover almost the entire Gulf of Mexico. After discussing the storm’s strength, trajectory, and storm surge capabilities, I finally said, “Drive up to the seawall and call me to tell me your decision.”
Fifteen minutes later he called me and said, “We’re leaving, and we’re getting all the grandparents out too. We’re hurrying!”
My wife’s family was rushing storm preparations to completion, and they were leaving too.
I was thankful, worried, and helpless, but when the water of the Gulf of Mexico is eye-level with an observer from the seawall as waves that hit the wall shoot 15-20 feet into the air, it becomes very real!
Those who lived through and experienced the aftermath of Hurricane Ike know all too well how fast life can change after even a Category 2 Hurricane. Ike wasn’t a major hurricane, but it brought a surge with major hurricane-like vengeance. The wind damage also extended well-inland.
It’s been 13 years since a hurricane directly impacted SE Texas which is well beyond the statistical return period of hurricanes to the upper Texas coast, and 2021 is forecast to be an above average year for tropical cyclones.
As you can see above, the NOAA is forecasting a 60% chance of an above-normal season. An average season yields 14 named storms, 7 hurricanes, and 3 major hurricanes. Of course, it only takes one storm to devastate an entire community or region.
A huge contributing factor that is considered when determining a season’s level of tropical cyclone activity is the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Currently the ENSO phase is transitioning from La Nina, which was in place for the very busy and above-normal 2020 season and produced Hurricane Laura, to an ENSO Neutral condition. While not as favorable for Tropical Cyclone development as the La Nina phase, the Neutral phase still produces conditions that are favorable for cyclones, particularly in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
The below table shows the severity of each ENSO phase and the years that qualified for each phase. Those of you who have lived on the coast the majority of your lives will recognize some years over others.
ENSO Phase by Year since 1950:
Some of us remember Hurricane Alicia in 1983, which was during a weak El Nino year. However, most of the land falling, memorable/impactful, storms for southeast Texas occurred in Neutral or Weak La Nina years. Thus, there is a greater risk to the Texas coast this year than what we might see in a strong La Nina, or strong El Nino year.
RECAP – General Effects of ENSO Phase on Atlantic Tropical Development:
- El Nino – Decreased tropical activity due to sinking air and increased wind shear.
- Neutral – Gives way to an average season, but can see increased activity in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
- La Nina – Basin-wide increase in development due to rising air and low shear.
ENSO Phase Forecast for the 2021 Hurricane Season:
- After being in a La Nina pattern for most of 2020 and first half of 2021, we’re starting to see Neutral conditions developing.
- Some forecasts show a weak La Nina developing in the latter half of the hurricane season.
- In either case, the setup this year seems to favor an above average season, and a season that could see more Gulf of Mexico activity in general.
- The below list shows all of the storms that have impacted the SE TX coast (within 100 miles of Galveston) during past ENSO Neutral and La Nina years.
Landfalls during Neutral ENSO within 100 miles of Galveston:
- Debra – Cat 1 – 1957
- Landfall just East of Freeport. Maintained hurricane force winds 100 miles inland.
- Carla – Cat 4 – 1961
- Landfall just West of Port O’Connor. 175 mph wind gusts, 22’ surge in Matagorda Bay, 46 fatalities.
- Debra – TS/Near Cat 1 – 1978
- Landfall near Jamaica Beach with 7-foot tides, 2-5 inches on rainfall and 6 weak tornadoes.
- Elena – TS – 1979
- Landfall near Matagorda Bay with Torrential rainfall and 2 deaths.
- Claudette – TS – 1979
- Landfall near Beaumont with Record Flooding in Alvin. 30-40” of rainfall in 24 hours.
- Danielle – TS – 1980
- Landfall in Galveston, Flooding in Port Arthur with 17” of rainfall.
- Dean – TS – 1995
- Landfall near Freeport with More than 15” of rain in Chambers County, 2 confirmed tornadoes.
- Allison – TS – 2001
- Landfall in Port Aransas, Beach Erosion, major rainmaker, record flooding in Houston.
- Grace – TS – 2003
- Landfall between Port O’Connor and Freeport. Produced flooding rains of 6-15 inches.
- Claudette – Cat 1 – 2003
- Landfall in Port O’Connor. Major beach erosion, more than 1700 homes/businesses damaged/destroyed.
- Rita – Cat 3 – 2005
- Landfall between Sabine Pass and Johnson’s Bayou. More died in the botched evacuation of the Houston Metro than the storm itself. Many lessons learned.
- Edouard – TS – 2008
- Landfall just east of High Island with Flooding across Chambers County.
- Ike – Cat 2 – 2008
- Devastating Hurricane for Galveston, Bolivar, and portions of Galveston Bay in terms of storm surge. Wind damage across large portion of SE Texas. Power restoration took weeks, and recovery at the coast took years.
Landfalls during Weak La Nina ENSO within 100 miles of Galveston:
- Jerry – Cat 1 – 1989
- Landfall near Jamaica Beach with 7 foot tides, 2-5 inches of rain, and 6 weak Tornadoes.
- Chantal – Cat 1 – 1989
- Landfall Near High Island. Heavy rain, and beach erosion, 2 weak tornadoes and 13 fatalities.
- Allison – TS – 1989
- Landfall near N. Matagorda Peninsula. Heavy rain producer, 3-5 foot surge, and 11 fatalities to drowning.
- Charley – TS – 1998
- Landfall near Port Aransas. Beach erosion, heavy rainfall.
- Frances – TS – 1998
- Landfall near Port O’Connor. 3 fatalities to drowning, $500 million of damage from coastal flooding and erosion, 4-10 inches of rainfall along the coast.
- Humberto – Cat 1 – 2007
- Landfall near High Island. Wind damage in and around High Island with rainfall of more than 14 inches in SE Chambers County.
- Erin – TS – 2007
- Landfall near San Jose Island (North of Port Aransas). Three fatalities from inland flooding. Significant flooding in Houston area.
In total, 21 storms (9 hurricanes and 11 Tropical Storms) over a total of 32 years that were classified as having either Neutral ENSO or were weak La Nina. This equates to roughly one tropical cyclone impacting SE TX in every second year that we have neutral or La Nina conditions, or one hurricane in every third neutral or La Nina year. In addition, while we do not count Hurricane Harvey (2017) in the above list, because it hit the Rockport area first, we do recognize that it infamously decimated the SE Texas region with torrential rain and widespread flooding, particularly the Houston Metro Area, back in 2017. However, the last hurricane to hit SE Texas was Hurricane Ike in 2008 – 13 years ago – and 8 similar ENSO Phase years have passed since Hurricane Ike.
To say Southeast Texas is past-due is a statistically true statement even though no one likes to admit it. Here’s hoping we can dodge another bullet this year, but, in case this year is the year, please do your part to prepare!
- Tips on Hurricane Preparedness can be found at: https://www.ready.gov/hurricanes
As of this writing – 6/8/2021 – the NHC has a 20% chance of development near central America over the next 5 days.
SE Texas Hurricane Climatology Source: National Weather Service League City. https://www.weather.gov/hgx/hurricanes_climatology
ENSO Years Source: https://ggweather.com/enso/oni.htm
ENSO Chart Source: Effects of ENSO on Atlantic Hurricane Formation; Coryn Collins; May 2015; https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/79650335.pdf
NHC Five Day Outlook – https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/gtwo.php?basin=atlc&fdays=5