Tropical storms possible before official season

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, May 15, 2018

By Skip Rigney 

The hurricane season for the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico officially begins on June 1st and will continue through November 30th.

The predecessor to the National Weather Service chose these dates in 1965 based on their analysis of the historical records of when most of the tropical depressions, storms, and hurricanes (all of which are referred to as tropical cyclones) had occurred.

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Typically, the most powerful hurricanes occur later in the season. Almost all of the major hurricanes that have affected us on the north-central Gulf Coast have done so in August and September. But, that doesn’t mean that tropical systems can’t affect us in June, especially tropical storms and minimal hurricanes. In fact, there have been several tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico as early as May. In records going back to the late 1800s, 13 tropical storms have passed within 150 miles of Pearl River County in the month of June. Only one of those was a hurricane.

In addition to the storm surge near the coast, extreme rainfall and inland freshwater flooding is a threat with many hurricanes and can occur even with weak tropical storms long before we reach the heart of the season.

Tropical Storm Allison is the most notorious early season Gulf of Mexico flood producer. Allison dumped torrential rains as it wandered on and offshore in Texas and Louisiana and inland over Mississippi and Alabama from June 5-12, 2001. During the week Houston, Texas recorded 36.99 inches, Thibodaux, Louisiana 29.86 inches, and Poplarville 14.35 inches.

Tropical Storm Arlene was the earliest storm to cause trouble for our area. Arlene made landfall south of Lafayette, Louisiana, on May 30, 1959, then moved northward into Mississippi. Heavy rain fell over much of southeast Mississippi with 13.55 inches reported at Merrill between Hattiesburg and Pascagoula.

In 2013 researchers Michael Chenoweth and Cary Mock published evidence that a hurricane hit the Florida Panhandle on May 28, 1863, killing dozens. This is the only known case of a hurricane-strength storm to hit the northern Gulf Coast in May.

The most deadly early season hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico was Hurricane Audrey. Fueled by unusually warm water in the Gulf, Audrey rapidly intensified and slammed the southwest Louisiana coast with 125 mile per hour winds on June 27, 1957. Over 400 people were killed, most of them by a 12-foot storm surge in Cameron Parish. As an illustration of how rare it is for full-blown hurricanes to hit the U.S. in June, Audrey was the first hurricane to do so since 12 years earlier in 1945. Almost all of the tropical cyclones that have affected the north-central Gulf Coast in May or June originated in the northwest Caribbean Sea or southern Gulf of Mexico. Usually in August and September, the source region shifts further eastward into the Atlantic Ocean. If you would like to learn more about hurricanes, how meteorologists observe and forecast their movement and intensity, the greatest risks they pose to Pearl River County, and our prospects for the upcoming season, come out Sunday, May 20th from 2:00-4:00 PM at Margaret Reed Crosby Memorial Library. Sponsored by the Friends of the Library, I will be giving a talk on these and other hurricane-related topics.