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The start of 2020 hurricane season – tropical storm Cristobal sets sights on Gulf Coast

image credit: Tropical Storm Cristobal, June 6, 2020, courtesy of NOAA National Hurricane Center

It is the beginning of the Atlantic Hurricane Season and already three tropical cyclones have been officially named. The most recent, Cristobal, is churning off the Yucatán Peninsula with sights set on the Gulf of Mexico for later this week. The 2020 season began early on May 6 with the arrival of Tropical Storm Arthur off the coast of Florida.  Tropical Storm Bertha formed on May 27 near the southeast coast of South Carolina and moved inland bringing high rainfall and 50 mph winds before weakening into a tropical depression heading into West Virginia and the Midwest. In early June, Cristobal became the third tropical cyclone of the 2020 season.  On June 3, the storm was generating sustained winds near 60 mph.  Cristobal is expected to strengthen and move into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico later this week and based on current tracking projections, it could reach the Louisiana coast as a strong tropical storm by early next week.

Source: NOAA, names provided by the World Meteorological Organization, May 2020


2020 Hurricane season predicted to be above average

The season runs from June 1 through November 30.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center’s Annual Outlook, the 2020 hurricane season is forecast to be more active than normal. 

Several factors including the presence of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions that are expected to either remain neutral or to trend toward La Niña, the opposite of El Niño, which typically suppresses hurricane activity.  Additionally, the presence of warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, combined with reduced vertical wind shear, weaker tropical trade winds, and an expected increase in African monsoon indicate a higher than normal Atlantic hurricane season this year.

The NOAA forecast predicts a 60% chance for above-normal activity, with only a 10% chance of below-normal activity.   The number of named storms is expected between 13 and 19, with 6-10 hurricanes, and 3-6 major hurricanes.   To put these numbers into perspective, consider that in 2019, an average year of storm activity, there were 18 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 3 major Category-3 or higher storms, with sustained winds > 111 miles per hour (mph).

Source: NOAA, seasonal probability, May 2020


Along with NOAA’s projection for an above-average number of hurricanes in 2020, scholar Dr. Phil Klotzbach and his Colorado State University hurricanes tracking team forecast 16 named storms, 8 hurricanes, and four major hurricanes in 2020 – a typical year has 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and 3 major hurricanes, which are classified as Category 3, 4 or 5 storms with sustained wind speeds above 111 mph.

The most destructive storms

Hurricanes are the most destructive weather events and often result in catastrophic damage to the nation’s power grid.  Over the past 100 years, there have been 36 Cat-5 storms with sustained winds topping 157 mph (252/km/h) recorded.  In the past four years, there have been 6 such storms – a high rate of 1.5 per year.  During the previous 96 years, the rate of Cat-5 hurricanes was little more than 0.33 per year.

According to data published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), the cumulative cost for all weather-related events including droughts, floods, freezes, severe storms, tropical cyclones, wildfires and winter storms has been $1.67 trillion dollars over 38 years of tracking.  Tropical cyclones (including major hurricanes) accounted for 55.1% ($919.7bn) of the total estimated infrastructure damage costs.

Most costly Atlantic hurricanes in history

The top 12 in terms of estimated property damage according to statistics compiled by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (billions of USD, nominal) include:

  • Katrina, Cat-5, Golf Coast, $125bn, 2005
  • Harvey, Cat-4, Texas and Gulf Coast, $125bn, 2017
  • Maria, Cat-5, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, $90bn, 2017
  • Irma, Cat-5, Caribbean and the eastern U.S., $77.2bn, 2017
  • Sandy, Cat-3, Caribbean and U.S east coast, $68.7bn, 2012
  • Ike, Cat-4, Texas, Gulf Coast, midwestern U.S., and Canada, $38bn, 2008
  • Wilma, Cat-5, Central America and Florida, $27.4bn, 2005 
  • Andrew, Cat-5, Bahamas, Florida, and Gulf Coast, $27.3bn, 1992
  • Ivan, Cat-5, Caribbean and Gulf Coast, $26.1bn, 2004
  • Michael, Cat-5, Central America, Florida, Georgia, Gulf Coast, eastern U.S., and eastern Canada, $25.1bn, 2018
  • Florence, Cat-4, Bermuda, U.S. east coast, and eastern Canada, $24.2bn, 2018
  • Rita, Cat-5, Cuba and Gulf Coast, $18.5bn, 2005

Hurricanes becoming more intense

Hurricanes are the most costly and damaging weather events to affect the United States.  During 2017 and 2018, five of the top twelve most costly Atlantic hurricanes in history wreaked havoc on the coastal power grid – causing nearly $350 billion (bn) dollars in total damages including electric infrastructure and other property.  There have been 6 Cat-5 hurricanes to pummel the Atlantic and Gulf coasts since 2016 with combined property damage of $212.4bn, and that doesn’t include the devastating damage caused by Cat-4 hurricane Harvey that is estimated to cost roughly $125bn. 

Last year (2019) was a relatively mild year with the near-miss of Dorian ($4.68bn) and Imelda ($5.00bn) topping the list. The estimated property damage from a storm the size of Dorian is considered amazingly small compared to past major hurricane events.

The worst year on record was 2017, when three major storms struck the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, and parts of the U.S. east coast, leaving wide areas of property damage.  The storms included Harvey ($125bn), Maria ($90bn), and Irma ($77.2bn).  In 2018, two more large hurricanes, Michael ($25.1bn) and Florence ($24.2bn), struck the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coasts with additional widespread infrastructure damage.

Grid infrastructure and storms

According to new (May 14) research by professional services company Accenture, almost three-quarters (73%) of surveyed utility respondents indicated that extreme weather events represent a significant challenge to network operations and safety.  About 92% expect severe weather to increase over the next decade, with only about one-quarter (24%) of respondents believing their businesses are fully prepared for such events.  Nearly 95% of respondents identified building greater adaptability through network configuration, embedded storage, redundancy, and voltage management is critical to increasing resilience.  Nearly the same number (93%) of respondents said they are currently testing new solutions for grid resilience including advanced protection systems, automated self-healing grids and drone inspections to mitigate future events.

Utility companies located along the Atlantic Seaboard and Gulf Coast are better armed and prepared today than in the past.  With heavy investment in grid digitization and hardening infrastructure, companies are in a stronger position to speed recovery after storms subside.  There are many ways that companies can secure their transmission and distribution assets, but it is nearly impossible to prevent widespread grid damage when strong hurricanes hit.  When that happens, the most important goal is to get the lights back on.

Investment in stronger infrastructure such as reinforced steel and cement poles and advanced sensor technology to locate trouble spots and speed repairs are just some of the grid hardening efforts being deployed today by utilities in the Atlantic and Gulf hurricane belt.  The region is one of the most heavily populated areas in the country.  The two most often impacted states, Florida and Texas, have experienced tremendous population growth in recent years.  Today Texas and Florida are home to about 30 and 22 million people respectively – only the state of California, with around 40 million people, is home to a larger population. 

Hurricane Dorian’s 2019 near miss

In late August and early September of 2019, the mainland United States experienced the near-miss of one of the most powerful Cat-5 hurricanes in history.  With sustained winds reaching 185 mph (295 km/h) over a one-minute period, Dorian leveled the Bahama Islands with catastrophic winds and heavy storm surge.  The storm was the hardest to hit the island chain in history and was the fifth strongest storm on record in terms of low barometric pressure (910 mbar) to make landfall.  The storm track targeted Florida with a possible landfall near metropolitan Miami, but as the hurricane neared the coast it took a northerly path eventually striking landfall near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina as a weakened Cat-2 storm.  The storm then moved northeastward away from shore into the north Atlantic.  The storm’s initial path triggered a massive preparation effort with the states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia all declaring a ‘state of emergency’ with many counties mandating evacuation by residents and business owners.

Hurricane Dorian path as of September 5, 2019


The eventual cost of damage in the United States was estimated at only $1.2 billion across six Atlantic Seaboard states running from Florida to Maine.  The Bahama Islands experienced most of the damage from Dorian, where about 13,000 homes were destroyed with more than $3.4 billion in damages.  On September 2, 2019, on the island of New Providence, Bahamas, the entire electric system lost power.  Later that week, as the storm moved north along the New England shores and into Canada, more than 400,000 electricity customers in Nova Scotia, Canada experienced outages from the high winds and heavy rain.

The last major hurricane to strike the U.S. – Michael in 2018

Hurricane Michael was the first Cat-5 hurricane on record to reach landfall along the Florida Panhandle and the most intense hurricane to strike the U.S. in October.  The storm formed on October 7 and dissipated nine days later, on October 16.  Damage estimates topped $25bn, and at one point, more than 1.7 million electricity customers were without power across several southeastern and Atlantic coast states.  

Hurricane Michael path through grid infrastructure, October 2018


Within a week of the catastrophic event, more than 95% of the customers that lost power had been restored.  Within days of the event, utilities of all sizes and types deployed more than 35,000 workers from 27 states and Canada to restore power.  Much of the power grid damage occurred in the Florida Panhandle.  

Electric companies in the immediate path of Michael – including Duke Energy Florida, NextEra’s Gulf Power, and Tallahassee Utilities – serve roughly 2.7 million customers.

In mid-October 2018, the City of Tallahassee Utilities in the Florida Panhandle was hit hard by Hurricane Michael.  The company’s grid took a severe blow, but after just four days of restoration, the system reached 86% of the previous year’s load.  Supported by better customer communications and faster response efforts, the utility was able to recover rapidly from one of the strongest storms to ever strike the Florida panhandle.

City of Tallahassee Electric Utility electric load: days before, during, and after Hurricane Michael, MW


Grid hardening efforts in recent years by utilities in hurricane-prone zones have been implemented and should contribute to faster recovery.  The overall shorter restoration time has benefited from these investments, which include the deployment of smart grid technologies like equipment sensors and upgraded communications systems. 

Utilities along Hurricane Belt are always prepared

Today, grid recovery times are often measured in days rather than weeks. Grid investments have enabled companies to communicate with customers faster and more accurately than at any time in the past.  Additionally, the communication between companies has been strengthened in recent years with improved mutual assistance relationships that help speed recovery after a major grid-damaging event.  Tree trimming, replacing aging poles, and in cases where the economics make sense, undergrounding wires can also save money and time when disaster strikes.

In mid-October 2018, less than a week after Michael had destroyed wide-swaths of the electric grid in several southeastern states, Duane Highly, president and CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, commented, “Never before have so many workers been mobilized so quickly from across our industry, and workers continue to be deployed to the hardest-hit areas where, in many cases, the energy grid is being completely rebuilt.”  

Since Atlantic and gulf coast tropical cyclones are by far the costliest weather events affecting the electric grid, we’ll be closely watching for the formation of low-pressure disturbances off the western coast of Africa and the Caribbean region as the summer progresses. 

Grid hardening investment in both the transmission and power distribution systems by utilities in the hurricane belt will help to speed recovery efforts when the next major storm strikes.

Cover photo: Tropical Storm Cristobal, June 6, 2020, courtesy of NOAA

Kent Knutson's picture

Thank Kent for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 8, 2020 12:49 pm GMT

According to new (May 14) research by professional services company Accenture, almost three-quarters (73%) of surveyed utility respondents indicated that extreme weather events represent a significant challenge to network operations and safety. 

The survey being taken so recently might play into this, but I wonder how the pandemic and dealing with all that fallout might impact the utilities' preparedness for the storms. Were their resources more strained? Are they behind on any of the typical preparations? Do you have any sense on if there will be a noticeable impact because of COVID, Kent?

Kent Knutson's picture
Kent Knutson on Jun 16, 2020 8:00 pm GMT

Matt, utilities serving the hurricane belt are always well prepared for the storm season.  In 2017 alone, the damage to property (including grid infrastructure) from three storms alone has been estimated at nearly $300 billion.  That's a chunk of change, and you never know when the next one, or two, or three, or four will occur.  I don't think the recent slow down driven by the pandemic will have much impact on preparation for hurricane season.  Through the first quarter of 2020, power generation has declined by about 3.5% . . . certain regions far more than others, but overall not a huge change in overall electricity production.  We'll see more when the second-quarter numbers are compiled.  thx for your comment.     

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