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Above average 2021 Atlantic hurricane season may keep Guard busy, threaten bases

One of the first forecasts of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season calls for an “above average” year, a leading tropical meteorologist said in a keynote address at Thursday’s National Tropical Weather Conference.

Phil Klotzbach, who directs seasonal hurricane forecasts at Colorado State University’s Tropical Weather and Climate Research Lab, projected that the Atlantic basin will see 17 named storms in 2021, five more than the historical average of around 12 per year.

A busy hurricane season could result in more activations an already-stressed National Guard, which has sustained an unprecedented workload since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — at the peak of domestic operations in June 2020, more than 120,000 Guard troops were activated either at home or abroad. The storms also could pose a threat to military installations throughout the South, such as Tyndall Air Force Base, which was devastated by Hurricane Michael in October 2018.

“It’s a real challenge,” to predict where exactly the storms will form and go, said Klotzbach in response to an audience question. But an increase in the number of storms inherently means an increased risk to vulnerable military bases, he told Military Times in December.

“More active seasons have more landfall,” said Klotzbach in December. But the impact on the military and the National Guard in particular has a lot to do with luck, he explained. “It’s all about location, location, location.”

“Tyndall Air Force Base, that’s...really, really bad luck that they basically were parked right in the middle of a [Category Four] hurricane,” he said in December. “Had the storm tracked 20, 30 miles in a different direction, you know, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad for them as it was.” But had the storm gone approximately 60 miles further west, it would have struck Eglin Air Force Base.

In the December interview, Klotzbach likened the probability of landfall in any particular location — and the necessary National Guard response — to roulette. “[In 2020], we had the most storms in the US in a year on record, but the damage overall wasn’t super high. It was high, but most of the storms went into areas that were fairly sparsely populated.”

When Hurricane Laura hit Lake Charles, Louisiana last year packing 150 mph winds, some 6,400 Guard troops were activated. But Lake Charles is a fairly small metropolitan area, emphasized Klotzbach in December. “[Take] it about 100 miles farther west and run it up the Houston Ship Channel,” and the National Guard response would have been even larger, he said.

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