2021/2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season



The recent devastation caused by Hurricane Ian reminds us that storms can cause major disruptions to the transportation system. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, as shown in the following table, consisted of 21 storms was the third-most active Atlantic hurricane season on record (after the 2020 season with 30 named storms and 2005 with 28 named storms). For additional information, please see Tropical Storm Elsa Makes Landfall in Florida; BTS Map Shows U.S. Ports Affected by 2020 Named Storms. Also, BTS published a summary of the 2020 hurricane season, which is available at 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season (bts.gov).
The 2021 season included 14 tropical storms (with winds of 34 knots or greater), 3 hurricanes (with winds of 64 knots or greater), and 4 major hurricanes (with winds of 96 knots or greater). [1] In 2021, there were 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters (4 of which were hurricanes or tropical storms) that affected the United States. These billion-dollar disasters included drought/heat waves, flooding, hail, hurricanes, tornados, severe weather, wildfires, and windstorms/cold waves. However, none of the other disasters are as disruptive as hurricanes are to maritime trade and transportation or as damaging to port infrastructure. [2]
In total, six storms, including two tropical storms, three hurricanes, and one major hurricane, made landfall in the United States as shown in the map below:
  1. Claudette (tropical storm, June 19-22, 2021)
  2. Elsa (hurricane, June 30-July 9, 2021)
  3. Fred (tropical storm, August 11-17, 2021)
  4. Henri (hurricane, August 15-23, 2021)
  5. Ida (major hurricane, September 1-26, 2021)
  6. Nicholas (hurricane, September 12-15, 2021)
These storms had major impacts on port operations as well as vessels operating nearby. The high winds (as measured in knots) and storm surges/waves associated with low pressures (as measured in millibar) affect vessel handling, safe navigation, decrease visibility, and pose significant dangers to mariners in port or at sea. Vessels are often forced to alter course, leave port early, stay in port later, or skip ports or certain areas to avoid hurricanes and tropical storms. [3]
Nearly every port along the Gulf coast endured closures or disruptions due to hurricanes and tropical storms as shown in the following table. In total, 18 of the profiled ports (with 4 along the Atlantic and 14 along the Gulf coasts) were affected by at least 1 hurricane or tropical storm. Additionally, the ports of Beaumont, Freeport, Lake Charles, Houston, Port Arthur, and Texas City were affected by two storms each, and the ports of Gulfport, Mobile, and San Juan were affected by at least three storms each.
Several ports were placed under hurricane port conditions (Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, or Zulu) by their U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port (COTP), which are designation intended to reduce exposure, minimize damage, and expedite a return to service after a storm passes. As defined in the 33 CFR Part 165, hurricane port conditions may include the following safeguards:
  • Hurricane Port Condition WHISKEY. All vessel and port facilities must exercise due diligence in preparation for potential storm impacts. Slow-moving vessels may be ordered to depart to ensure safe avoidance of the incoming storm upon the anticipation of the setting of Port Condition X–RAY.
  • Hurricane Port Condition X–RAY. All vessels and port facilities shall ensure that potential flying debris is removed or secured. Hazardous materials/ pollution hazards must be secured in a safe manner and away from waterfront areas. Facilities shall continue to implement container stacking protocol. Containers must not exceed four tiers, unless previously approved by the COTP.
  • Hurricane Port Condition YANKEE. All commercial, oceangoing vessels and barges over 500 GT are prohibited from entering the regulated areas designated as being in Port Condition YANKEE; within 24 hours of anticipated landfall of gale force winds (39 mph) from tropical or hurricane force storm; or upon the Coast Guard setting Port Condition YANKEE for inbound oceangoing commercial vessel traffic over 500 GT. Oceangoing commercial vessel traffic outbound will be authorized to transit through the regulated areas until Port Condition ZULU.
  • Hurricane Port Condition ZULU. All commercial, oceangoing vessels and barges over 500 GT are prohibited from entering the regulated areas designated as being in Port Condition ZULU; within 12 hours of anticipated landfall of a tropical storm or hurricane; or upon the Coast Guard setting Port Condition ZULU, unless written permission is obtained from the Captain of the Port. All ship-to-shore cargo operations must cease six hours prior to setting Port Condition Zulu.
The port captain declares an all clear and sets the port condition to recovery. As defined in 33 CFR Part 165, the hurricane port conditions range from minimal preparation under port condition Whiskey to suspending all port waterfront operations under port condition Zulu, based upon predicted weather conditions. Port performance is impacted under all hurricane port conditions, especially since cargo handling and vessel operations may be curtailed. Additionally, container port capacity is temporarily reduced since marine terminals are unable to stack containers more than four high. [4]
For example, the profiled ports of Gulfport and Mobile were ordered by their port captain to port condition Whiskey from July 3 to 7, 2021, as Hurricane Elsa passed by the port's vicinity. The port of Mobile was ordered to port condition X-Ray from August 13 to 17, 2021 and Gulfport to Whiskey from August 14 to 17, 2021 as Tropical Storm Fred passed nearby. On August 26, these and surrounding ports were order by their port captain to condition Whiskey. This was elevated to port condition Zulu on August 28, suspending all port waterfront operations as Hurricane Ida passed nearby. All the restrictions were not fully lifted until September 2, 2021.
Additionally, the profiled ports of Houston, Freeport, and Texas City were placed under a modified port condition X-Ray, which was elevated to condition Yankee from September 13 to September 15, 2021, as Tropical Storm Nicholas passed by these port's vicinities. Under port condition Yankee, the port is closed to inbound vessel traffic and all terminal operators must terminate all cargo operations. These ports were placed under a modified Port Condition Whiskey from August 26 to 28, 2021, as tropical storm Ida passed nearby. [5]
Container ports often quickly resume cargo handling and vessel operations once an “all clear” has been declared by the port captain. So there usually not a significant impact on monthly throughput, unless there's major damaged to port infrastructure such as ship-to-shore gantry cranes or docks. [6]
In general, the 2021 hurricane season experienced similar challenges to the 2020 hurricane season, including transportation to and from the affected areas, and issues with communication. Additionally, the 2020 hurricane season came with the added challenge of ensuring that COVID-19 virus did not spread, especially during hurricane response and recovery. These are highlighted, along with in-depth analysis of three storms in 2020 (Hurricanes Laura, Sally, and Delta) in the following interagency U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System report, which is available through the National Transportation Library's ROSA-P at An Examination of Multi-Hazard Marine Transportation System (MTS) Response and Recovery Operations during the 2020 Hurricane Season (bts.gov). [7]
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predictions, sea level rise will cause higher coastal inundation levels along with a global increase in tropical cyclone rainfall rates and the proportion of tropical cyclones that reach intense Category 4 and 5 levels. [8] Such challenges will have a significant impact on port operations and, more importantly, performance, especially as hurricanes make landfall in and around the Nation's port areas. For example, the port of Lake Charles declared a state of "extreme emergency," allowing for immediate repairs and reconstruction of cargo facilities after extensive damage after a nearly direct hit from Hurricane Laura in late August 2020. [9]
The Nation's ports will need to increase their ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions and withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from such disruptions. This may include hardening critical infrastructure and incorporating engineering resilience. It might also include adopting new design standards and construction techniques that allow marine terminals to operate under a wide range of operational conditions with minimal damage, alteration, or loss. [10]

Hurricane Fiona struck near Punta Tocon, Puerto Rico at 3:20 PM on September 18, 2022 via USDOC NOAA GOES Geostationary Satellite Server
At the time of writing, the 6th hurricane of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season made landfall along the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Fiona struck near Punta Tocon, Puerto Rico at 3:20 PM on September 18, 2022. The storm brought heavy rains, strong winds, and storm surge disrupting travel and transportation. [11] The U.S. Coast Guard's Captain of the Port put the port of San Juan under Condition Zulu from late Saturday, September 17, to early Monday, September 19, when the port reopened for daylight operations only. [12] 
Hurricane Ian, the 9th hurricane of the season, made landfall as a major hurricane near Cayo Costa, Florida, at 3:05 pm on September 28, 2022. The storm crossed the state and entered the Atlantic Ocean. Then, Hurricane Ian made landfall as a category 1 near Georgetown, South Carolina, at 2:05 on September 30, 2022. [13] In total, 7 top ports were impacted by Hurricane Ian, which caused widespread disruption in trade and transportation, along both the Atlantic and Gulf coast. Consequently, the U.S> Coast Guard's Captains of the Port put their respective ports under Condition Zulu, including (from South to North):
  • Tampa Port Authority, FL
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Savannah, GA
  • Charleston, SC
  • Wilmington, NC
  • Virginia, VA, Port of
  • Baltimore, MD [14]
Footnotes
[1] One knot equals one nautical mile per hour or about 1.15 statute mph, which is the unit of measurement commonly used on roads signs and speedometers in the United States. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Hurricane Center, 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season, available at National Hurricane Center (noaa.gov) as of September 2022.
[2] U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office for Coastal Management, Hurricane Costs, available at Hurricane Costs (noaa.gov) as of September 2022.
[3] U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Hurricane Center, Marine Safety, available at Marine Safety (noaa.gov) as of September 2022.
[4] 33 CFR Part 165, which is available at 33 CFR Part 165 -- Regulated Navigation Areas and Limited Access Areas as of April 2022. 
[5] U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics analysis, based upon the U.S. Coast Guard, Port Conditions, available at Missions (uscg.mil) and Port Authority websites as of  September 2022.
[6] U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics; analysis based on data sources cited in Monthly Container Port TEUs: TEUs - Tableau Server (dot.gov) as of September 2022.
[7] U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS), An Examination of Multi-Hazard Marine Transportation System (MTS) Response and Recovery Operations during the 2020 Hurricane Season, available at An Examination of Multi-Hazard Marine Transportation System (MTS) Response and Recovery Operations during the 2020 Hurricane Season (bts.gov) as of September 2022.
[8] U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Global Warming and Hurricanes an Overview of Current Research Results (July 2022), available at Global Warming and Hurricanes – Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (noaa.gov) as of  September 2022.
[9] Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District, Declaration of Extreme Emergency (September 2020), available at Declaration-of-Extreme-Emergency.pdf (portlc.com) as of September 2022.
[10] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USACE Guide to Resilience Practices (December 2020), available at EP 1100-1-5, USACE Guide to Resilience Practices (army.mil) as of September 2022.
[11] U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Fiona, available at Hurricane Fiona (noaa.gov) as of September 2022.
[12] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Coast Guard, Port Status Information, available at Missions (uscg.mil) as of September 2022.
[13] U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Fiona, available at Hurricane Fiona (noaa.gov) as of October 2022.
[14] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Coast Guard, Port Status Information, available at Missions (uscg.mil) as of October 2022.