Conditions for hurricane development improve, adding risk to Gulf, East Coast travel lanes

Hurricanes can cause significant impacts to supply chains, and because they can hug the East Coast, affect goods movement up and down the coast for days or even weeks.

Transportation planners and dispatchers sending trucks east are used to checking long-range weather forecasting during hurricane season. In recent years, disruption to routes along the Gulf Coast and East Coast because of these monster storms – which can spread hundreds of miles wide and leave widespread flooding and infrastructure damage in their wake – has been minimal. That could change this hurricane season.

It has been nearly 12 years since the last “major” hurricane (a Category 3 or higher storm) made landfall in the U.S. “That is long enough to get lazy and to forget. The streak will not last,” University of Colorado-Boulder researcher Roger Pielke wrote on his blog recently.

That is not to say the U.S. has not been hit by hurricanes or even storms – remember Superstorm Sandy, which devastated New York and New Jersey and disrupted travel for weeks in some areas – that have had devastating impacts. But such a long period without a major storm suggests the law of averages will catch up to the country at some point.

That’s why an update to its Atlantic Hurricane Season forecast from Riskpulse, a risk management service, bears watching. Authored by Jon DavisMark Russo, and Eric Adamchick, the blog posting suggests the strong start to this hurricane season may only be a beginning.

“Expect the remainder (and the heart) of the Atlantic Hurricane season to feature above normal activity in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean,” they write. “Above normal tropical cyclone activity suggests there is an elevated risk of disruption to energyagriculture, and logistics interests along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast.”

To date, there have been five named storms, although none have threatened the U.S. and most have been relatively weak systems. Only Tropical Storm Cindy reached the U.S., making landfall as a weak tropical storm along the Texas/Louisiana border on June 22.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, with August and September the most active times. On average, there are approximately 11 named tropical storms, 6 hurricanes, and 2-3 major hurricanes of category 3 strength or greater, the Riskpulse experts explain.

Recently, a warming of the Atlantic basin and expected development of a low wind shear environment in the ocean (wind shear tends to tear apart tropical systems) is resulting in most organizations upping their forecast for hurricanes.

Riskpulse measures tropical cyclone activity in something called accumulated cyclone energy (ACE), which is the measure of the frequency, strength, and duration of all tropical cyclones within a given season. The ACE reading, as of Aug. 3, was 3.9, below the normal level of 8.9, but that is likely to change.

Riskpulse’s meteorologists indicate that the waters in the Atlantic basin are warmer than normal and combined with a low wind shear environment are more favorably to tropical system development. Also, the waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are running about 1 degree Celsius above normal.

“All 3 regions (The Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and tropical Atlantic/MDR) have featured a warming trend since the early part of the season,” the authors note. “This warming trend makes the Atlantic basin more ripe for development of tropical systems and when they do form, there is a higher probability of more intense storms. This variable SSTs [sea surface temperatures] in the Atlantic basin has pushed the storm risk higher since the early portion of the summer.”

The region’s low wind shear is also conducive to tropical development.

“In order for a cluster of thunderstorms to develop into an organized rotating tropical cyclone, low wind shear is required,” the authors write. “In other words, high levels of wind shear inhibit the rotation of tropical systems and therefore are not favorable for development or strengthening systems.

“While wind shear can change from day to day, we believe that wind shear should be in a relaxing mode as we head toward the heart of the Atlantic Hurricane season, which is a variable in favor of tropical cyclone development,” they add.

While the Riskpulse forecast can’t determine with certainty potential storm impact, the authors conclude by advising firms to make preparations in case a storm develops.

What can carriers do now?

While there are no significant threats at the moment, trucking companies can be prepared. With hundreds and potentially thousands of assets in a storm’s path (hurricanes have been known to skirt along the East Coast, impacting areas from Florida to New England), carriers should have plans in place to relocate equipment ahead of the storm if needed, but also to be watching long-range forecasts. Unlike tornadoes, hurricanes don’t strike without warning, giving fleets up to a week possibly to make preparations for possible impacts.

Back in 2012, Schneider National shared with Fleet Owner how it prepared for Superstorm Sandy. The tips it discussed remain relevant today and could help other fleets survive with minimal disruption or damage to their systems.

Walt Fountain, director of safety and enterprise security, told the publication that before Sandy hit, because of its size (Sandy was about 1,000 miles wide at one point) and Schneider’s footprint, the carrier knew it would take a direct hit somewhere in its network.

“We have a whole set of contingency plans broken out by facility,” Fountain told Fleet Owner. “We give each facility a general plan that is about 80% complete and then ask them to customize the last 20% to the particular needs of their own location.”

Fountain said the company performs “drill rehearsals each year” to prepare. Those drills sometimes include customers, who are impacted if freight can’t be delivered or picked up for days because of a storm.

Communication is key, Fountain said, not only with customers but also employees, so everyone knows what is expected of them and what they can do to help.

If your carrier has physical locations in areas of potential impact, these hurricane preparation tips from Traveler’s Insurance can help:

  • Prepare a survival kit that includes items such as water and non-perishable food for everyone, including your pets; medications; a portable radio; flashlights; batteries; and battery chargers for your cell phones and other portable electronic devices, which can be powered by your car.
  • Plan your evacuation route and leave as soon as an evacuation order is issued. Also, fuel up your car before you leave.
  • Build a content inventory of the items in your home or at your business.
  • Secure all outdoor objects or move them inside. Close your home’s storm shutters and board up windows and glass doors as appropriate.
  • Fill your emergency generator fuel tank, if you have one, and have spare fuel on hand. Store generator fuel in an approved container in a garage or shed, away from open flames, heat sources and appliances such as natural gas appliances.

The after effects of natural disasters such as hurricanes can also clog up the freight system for days or weeks. Delayed shipments and pickups because assets are not in the proper locations can take time to sort through. There is also the bottleneck caused by relief supplies that are rushed to the worst-hit areas. Needed as they are, they still result in assets being diverted, further delaying shipments. Road congestion also tends to increase in the days following a disaster as fleets relocate equipment and make delayed deliveries.

While there are no specific threats right now, indications are the U.S. could face some in the next two months. Carriers can reduce their risk to damage and delays within their systems by preparing contingency plans now – just in case.

Show More

Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.