Hurricane Delta is the latest disaster in a vicious season

By Justine Calma

Gulf Coast Prepares For Hurricane Delta
Local volunteers help board up a business ahead of Hurricane Delta on October 8th, 2020, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Residents along the Gulf Coast are bracing for the arrival of Delta, which is expected to make landfall in Louisiana on October 9th.
Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images

Hurricane Delta is the latest storm to threaten the US during a hurricane season that’s smashed records and mangled Gulf Coast communities time and again. The Atlantic hurricane season has lived up to early forecasts of an unusually busy year, and there’s still enough of 2020 left to set new records.

Since modern record-keeping, there have never been more than nine named storms to make landfall in the continental US. That’s forecast to change when Delta hits later today. If it does, it will be the first time since 2005 that five hurricanes have battered the mainland US within a single season.

This is the 25th named storm in a season that’s been so prodigious that the World Meteorological Association ran out of storm names three weeks ago. (In a typical season, only about a dozen tropical depressions gain enough strength to be given a storm name.) Meteorologists resorted to using the Greek alphabet for just the second time in history. The first time this happened was in 2005, and this year’s season is burning through names faster. (In 2005, Hurricane Delta didn’t form until late November.)

Back in August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center predicted that up to 25 named storms would form this year. Hurricane season ends on November 30th, leaving plenty of time for more.

Delta became the strongest Atlantic hurricane with a Greek name on October 6th after it rapidly intensified into a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds, according to Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University. Delta grew from a tropical depression to a Category 4 hurricane faster than any other storm in the Atlantic in modern records, according to meteorologists Sam Lillo and Tomer Burg. Storms that quickly intensify are becoming more frequent as the climate heats up.

Delta weakened before striking Mexico just south of Cancun earlier this week, pummeling tourist spots and cutting power to about a third of households and businesses — 266,000 customers — on the Yucatan peninsula.

Now, Delta is expected to bring a “life-threatening” storm surge to parts of the Gulf Coast, including areas recently battered by Hurricane Laura. Homes and buildings are still boarded up and covered with tarps in Louisiana after Laura tore through in late August. Laura was another hurricane that intensified with surprising speed. Now, Delta threatens to pick up piles of debris left in Laura’s aftermath and turn them into blunt weapons with its hurricane-force winds.

Laura’s 150-mph winds wrecked the radar station in Lake Charles, Louisiana, leaving the area without a way to gather data on conditions in the lower atmosphere. A mobile Doppler radar unit was brought in yesterday by the National Weather Service and the University of Oklahoma, The Washington Post reported. Without it, officials would have been left without a tool to monitor potential tornadoes and flash flooding.

As the Gulf Coast braces for more damage, much of the nation is reeling from a year with more billion-dollar disasters than nearly any other. 2020 has already tied the record with 2011 and 2017 for the total number of weather and climate disasters causing at least $1 billion in losses. Sixteen billion-dollar catastrophes — not including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — have taken place this year. That includes hurricanes Laura and Sally and unprecedented wildfires across the West Coast.

With hurricane season and fire season still raging, 2020 could still set a new record with a 17th disaster. Hurricane Delta, currently a dangerous Category 2 storm as it makes its way across the Gulf of Mexico, could deal that blow.

It’s rare for hurricanes to make landfall in the US past October, according to Klotzbach. “But certainly given what’s happened so far this year, we’re not ruling out anything yet,” he tells The Verge. “It remains to be seen what the final post mortem on the season will be.”