Well, that escalated quickly. In a bizarre turn of events, a tropical storm formed suddenly on Wednesday morning immediately prior to making landfall in South Carolina.
Tropical Storm Bertha is the second tropical storm and first to make landfall of the Atlantic hurricane season, which technically hasn’t even begun yet. Winds won’t be as big an issue as the rain: Up to eight inches could fall, unleashing flash floods as the storm moves inland.
The whole Bertha situation is a weird one, which seems fitting for 2020. Over the weekend, the storms that made up proto-Bertha dropped heavy rain on Miami and caused widespread flooding. The National Hurricane Center issued its first advisory on Tuesday, noting this was a system to watch. The storm officially formed at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and made landfall an hour later. By this evening, it’s forecast to be but a remnant low.
Despite being a very short-lived named tropical storm, Bertha could still have some serious impacts for Carolinas and beyond. Tropical storm-force winds only extend a short ways out from Bertha’s core. That, coupled with the fact that Bertha got its act together so close to land, means there’s not likely to be much in the way of storm surge or other coastal impacts.
The storm will, however, bring heavy rains from Charleston, South Carolina, to Roanoke, Virginia. Soils in the region are already fairly saturated from wet weather last week. That means rather than absorbing into the ground, rains could run off into rivers and cause them to flood. The National Weather Service has issued flash flood watches and warnings, including one that calls for “extensive flooding of timber land and farm land” along the Great Pee Dee River and some of its tributaries in South Carolina.
Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1. It appears the tropics didn’t get the memo, though: Bertha is the second named storm of the season, following Tropical Storm Arthur, which formed in mid-May between Cuba and Florida. Though Arthur technically didn’t make landfall, its outer bands clipped Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas as it wound its way through the Strait of Florida. It then scraped North Carolina’s coast before heading into the open waters of the Atlantic.
This marks the sixth year in a row that at least one preseason storm has formed in the Atlantic basin, and the first time since 2016 that two named storms have formed prior to June 1. Atlantic hurricane and tropical storm names follow the alphabet, and Bertha is the third-earliest “B” storm ever recorded, according to Charlotte meteorologist Brad Panovich.
It’s also an unwelcome harbinger of what’s projected to be a very active Atlantic hurricane season. A recently released National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast is in line with other major forecasting centers, calling for up to 19 named storms, including three to six major hurricanes. Arthur and Bertha aren’t anywhere near that level, but hurricane season doesn’t usually get cranking at full speed until later in summer and early fall, when waters have had a chance to warm and atmospheric conditions are primed for powerful storms. With the prospect of gnarlier storms ahead and a pandemic raging, the toll of this year’s hurricane season could be worse than usual.