Tropics may be active this year

BY PJ HELLER | MIAMI | May 31, 2002

"It scares the bejeebers out of me to see the development on the coast and know these people have not experienced the core of a hurricane."

—Max Mayfield, National Hurricane Center

The 2002 Atlantic hurricane season officially opens on Saturday with forecasters predicting a normal to slightly above-average storm season and warning that residents in Atlantic and Gulf Coast states need to be prepared.

"A lot of people have what I call 'hurricane amnesia,'" said Max

Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center here. "There area lot of things happening in the world. (But) we can't afford to let our guard down. When an evacuation order is given, residents should treat it as a life or death matter."

Mayfield and other officials said they were concerned about population growth along coastal areas and complacency among the public about hurricane warnings.

"It scares the bejeebers out of me to see the development on the coast and know these people have not experienced the core of a hurricane," Mayfield said.

"Residents in hurricane-prone areas must keep up their guard since it only takes one hurricane to destroy a community and lives," said Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., administrator at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Officials at the agency predicted in May that there could be nine to 13 tropical storms with six to eight hurricanes during the 2002 season, which runs through Nov. 30.

Two of the hurricanes were expected to be Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale. A Category 3 storm packs winds of 111 to 130 miles per hour, creates a storm surge nine to 12 feet and can cause extensive damage.

William Gray, a professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, whose storm predictions are closely followed, said today the 2002 season would be "near average" with 11 named tropical storms with six of them developing into hurricanes.

Of those six, Gray said two could become intense major hurricanes of Category 3, 4 or 5. A Category 5 storm could cause "catastrophic damage" with winds of more than 155 mph and a storm surge more than 18 feet.

Only two Category 5 storms have hit the United States since record-keeping began. The first was Labor Day 1935 which left more than 400 people dead in the Florida Keys and caused an estimated $6 million (more than $2 billion in today's dollars) in damage. The other was Hurricane Camille, which struck the Mississippi coast in 1969, killing 256 people and causing $1.4 billion damage.

Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in August 1992, was a Category 4 storm. It caused some $27 billion in damages, making it one of the costliest storms in U.S. history. It damaged or destroyed more than 125,000 homes and left 61 people dead.

Andrew also ranks at the third most expensive natural disaster in terms of relief costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Its $1.8 billion in relief costs was surpassed only by Hurricane Georges ($2.3 billion) in 1998 and the 1994 Northridge earthquake ($6.9 billion) in California, FEMA reported.

On the 10th anniversary of Andrew, officials fear that for many South Florida residents - one in five who have moved to the region since Andrew, increasing the population by some 1 million people - have no concept of how devastating such a storm can be.

"The public hasn't seen a land-falling hurricane in two seasons and we know from experience - out of sight is out of mind," Mayfield told a news conference in mid-May. "These are dangerous storms requiring the public to take precautions now before the season starts."

"As we prepare for another hurricane season with an ever-growing population living in vulnerable coastal areas, we all share the responsibility of preventing the loss of life, and minimizing the damage to property from hurricanes," added FEMA Region VI director Ken Burris.

Gray's latest forecast said there was an average probability that a hurricane would make landfall this season. He said the probability was 63 percent for the entire U.S. coastline, compared to a 52 percent average for the last century. For the East Coast, including the Florida peninsula, the probability was 42 percent compared to 31 percent; for the Gulf Coast from the Panhandle west to Brownsville, Texas, the figure was 35 percent versus 30 percent. He also predicted a near average chance of a major hurricane landfall in the Caribbean.

Gray's latest forecast and landfall probabilities released on the eve of the start of the hurricane season was revised downward from his earlier predictions issued in December and again in April. In December, he had predicted 13 named storms, six hurricanes and two intense storms. Those figures were revised downward in April to 12, seven and three, respectively.

"The fairly active season anticipated in our earlier 7 December 2001 and 5 April 2002 forecasts is now less likely," he said. "Predictive signals from around the globe have become mixed."

Gary said he would release updated figures on Aug. 7 before the start of height of the hurricane season.

Last year, there were 15 named storms, nine of which became hurricanes. A typical Atlantic hurricane season has an average of 10 tropical storms, six of which become hurricanes with two of those classified as major, NOAA said.

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