Hurricane season begins June 1, with the U.S. coast from North Carolina to Texas again at above-average risk, but coastal residents can take modest comfort in the knowledge that the federal government’s response to any havoc-wreaking storm will be under a microscope.

In a sense, hurricanes are now a political issue. Former Vice President Al Gore is out publicizing his documentary about the dangers of global warming. And President Bush is keenly aware that his political fortunes suffered considerable collateral damage from his administration’s sluggish and disorganized response to Katrina.

One hopes it won’t come to that, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency may get a chance to demonstrate that it is a reformed and greatly improved relief service.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that from next week through Nov. 30 13 to 16 named storms will develop in the Atlantic; eight to 10 of them will become hurricanes; and four to six of those will develop into major hurricanes. Colorado State University goes a little further and says there’s an 81 percent one of those major hurricanes will strike the Atlantic coast.

Last year, which gave us Katrina, Rita and a ruined New Orleans, was a record-breaking season that produced 28 named storms, 15 of them hurricanes and seven of those major, of which four hit the United States. The ocean temperatures are not as ominous this year as last, but still, according to NOAA, we are midway through a 20-year strong storm cycle.

Hurricane forecasting has become immensely more sophisticated and accurate, but the number of people at risk has increased. According to the Associated Press, there are 34.6 million on the at-risk Atlantic and Gulf coasts, including 17.3 million in Florida. That’s a lot of people to convince to evacuate if a killer hurricane threatens, but the images of the desperate people of New Orleans waving from the roofs of their flooded homes should provide some incentive.

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown, praised by Bush for doing a “heckuva job,” became the hapless symbol of the bungled federal response after Katrina washed him out of office. For whatever irony it’s worth, the 13th named storm of this season will be called Michael.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)