Could be another blowhard year

The upcoming hurricane season won’t be as busy as last year’s record-shattering 28 tropical storms, but the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are still at above-average risk for new poundings, forecasters said Monday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s official outlook for the season that begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30 is for 13 to 16 named tropical storms to develop in the Atlantic, with eight to 10 becoming hurricanes. Four to six of those storms are forecast to strengthen into major hurricanes with winds in excess of 110 mph.

But Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, cautioned against focusing on the numbers. “It just takes one hurricane over your house to make for a bad year,” he said.

On average over the last 40 years, the north Atlantic hurricane season has produced 11 named storms, with six becoming hurricanes, including two major hurricanes.

Last year, the Atlantic spawned 28 storms, including 15 hurricanes, the most since recordkeeping began in 1851. Seven of these hurricanes were considered “major,” and a record four of them hit the United States _ Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

While the government outlook makes no attempt to predict where the storms will go, a separate forecast by researchers at Colorado State University issued last month called for a similar number of storms and noted an 81 percent chance that at least one major hurricane will make landfall somewhere along the U.S. Atlantic coast this season.

Warmer ocean water _ though not quite as warm as it was at this time last year _ combined with wind patterns that favor development of storms in greater numbers and with greater intensity, are the formula for another above-average season, NOAA said.

Forecasters also said recent satellite and surface observations indicate that the Pacific Ocean water condition known as La Nina will not affect the Atlantic hurricane season this year. These events can affect wind patterns in ways that make it easier for hurricanes to form and stay organized. They also tend to help steer the storms toward the United States.

Nine of the past 11 hurricane seasons have been above normal. While a number of atmospheric scientists have reported evidence that hurricanes may be increasing in intensity because of global climate warming _ the average surface temperature of the tropical Atlantic has increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past century _ government scientists note that water temperature is only one part of a complex set of ingredients for tropical storms.

Government officials are calling on people living on or near the coast to take more responsibility for ensuring the safety of their families in the event they’re hit by a hurricane, particularly since the devastation of Katrina hammered home the limits of government and private relief operations.

“Don’t call someone to come save you if you haven’t taken any steps to save yourself,” said Craig Fugate, Florida’s director of emergency management. “It’s real simple: You need to get a plan.”

At the same time, officials at a Miami news conference on the forecast spoke of steps taken to beef up response for future storms. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance, has tripled its stockpile of emergency meals to 770 truckloads, added new communications systems and set up new teams of observers to better report conditions and needs from the scene of a disaster.

The National Hurricane Center has added four new forecasters to its staff, NOAA has a new center nearby to analyze U.S. and European satellite images of tropical systems, and better communications links have been installed in local weather-service offices throughout hurricane country.

Mayfield pointed out that it’s likely the current active hurricane cycle will continue at least another decade, perhaps longer, and that extends the odds for more devastation.

“For years, we lived with Camille (the 1969 storm that killed more than 200 people on the Mississippi coast), but felt that was as bad as it can get. Now we know that it can get worse,” said Robert Latham, director of emergency management for Mississippi.

“And as bad as Katrina was (more than 1,500 deaths across the Gulf states), it can be worse.”

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(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)