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Violent 2020 Hurricane Season Swirls Into History, Leaving Behind Shock, Death, Devastation

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National Hurricane Center
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The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, the most active season since records began in 1851, will officially end on Monday, Nov. 30.

It was a season that killed hundreds of people, ravaged some regions like Louisiana, Central America and Puerto Rico over and over again, left behind billions of dollars in damages and stunned even the most experienced meteorologists with its unrelenting pace.

There were 30 named storms, beating the previous record of 28 set in 2005, according to the National Weather Service. The storm count included 13 hurricanes, including six major hurricanes.

The season officially began on June 1, but by May 16, Tropical Storm Arthur was already tormenting the East Coast from Florida to North Carolina.

At one point in mid September, forecasters watched six significant tropical systems simultaneously, from the Texas Gulf Coast to the West African coast (below). September alone saw 10 named storms, the most for any month in history.

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National Hurricane Center
The situation in the Atlantic in mid September 2020.

The 2020 hurricane season was not completely quiet yet. As of Saturday, Nov. 28, the National Hurricane Center found two Atlantic storm systems worth noting, though they were not expected to strengthen.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned in a statement issued on Nov. 24 that although “the official hurricane season concludes on November 30, tropical storms may continue to develop past that day.”

Todd Beal, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Southern Headquarters, said Laura, which struck southwest Louisiana on Aug. 27, was the costliest storm of 2020. Researchers were still compiling official numbers, but previously published reports estimated Laura’s damage at more than $14 billion.

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NOAA

Laura killed 77 people. But Eta, which slammed into Nicaragua on Nov. 3, was the season’s deadliest storm. Initial news reports issued weeks later estimated Eta left more than 200 peope dead and more than 100 people missing throughout the Central American region.

Beal said Hanna was the strongest hurricane to hit Texas this season. “Hurricane Hanna made landfall on Saturday, July 25th, on the Padre Island National Seashore in Kenedy County,” he explained. “This hurricane was a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 90 mph.”

Five deaths were blamed on Hanna, but none were reported in Texas. Four people died in Mexico and one person in Florida. Damage was set at $875 million.

Beal said three weather factors combined to create the record-breaking season: warm sea surface temperatures, reduced wind shear, and the La Nina effect in the Pacific Ocean.

“La Nina conditions developed in August,” he said. “La Nina can further weaken wind shear over the Atlantic Basin and generally favor an increase in tropical activity.”

Wind shear can tear through forming storms.

Beal said there were so many storms that forecasters ran out of the 21 names on the usual hurricane season list. The NOAA said that list was exhausted by Sept. 18 when Tropical Storm Wilfred formed.

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Fernando Ortiz Jr. | Texas Public Radio
A map from the 2005 hurricane season, which was the last season that letters from the Greek alphabet were needed to name tropical storms and hurricanes. That season included Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta.

They then switched to the Greek alphabet, which had not happened since 2005. It was only the second time that more names were needed.

By Sept. 23, Tropical Storm Beta menaced the Texas coast. But it brought little more than strong winds and heavy rains to already exhausted Gulf communities.

The season continued its busy pace, working its way up to Iota, the ninth name on the list.

The NOAA also explained and touted the range of technology it deployed to study storms this year, including the classic Hurricane Hunter aircraft, weather balloons, new squadrons of satellites, hurricane ocean gliders, more sophisticated imagery analysis, better weather models and refined instruments to better measure wave heights and coastal storm surges.

The 2020 season was also unique because it took place during the coronavirus pandemic. New standards of safety demanded new solutions as old plans for hurricane evacuations, storm shelters, supply stockpiles and medical care procedures were all scrapped or reimagined.