By LEE BOWMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
November 29, 2005
But with the official hurricane season ending Wednesday after an unprecedented 26 named storms, the forecasters will huddle in the coming months to consider what they might do better to prepare people for what will probably be another ugly season beginning next June.
"I'd like to foretell that next year will be calmer, but I can't," said Conrad Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Historical trends say the atmospheric patterns and water temperatures are likely to force another active season upon us."
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, hours after Tropical Storm Epsilon formed in the mid-Atlantic, Lautenbacher said this season "shattered records that have stood for decades."
Beyond the numbers, though, hurricane experts want to give the public better information about how powerful a particular storm will be as it makes landfall in order to guide people in making evacuation and sheltering decisions.
At an earlier forum on emergency preparedness, Carolina Beach, N.C., Mayor Dennis Barbour said coastal communities need more help to prepare for powerful hurricanes.
"We know what we're dealing with in a Category 1 or 2 storm," said Barbour, who in 10 years as mayor has watched eight hurricanes hit his community, including Ophelia in September. "We need better warning and planning for the Category 3 and higher, the catastrophic storms."
Lautenbacher said a national panel of experts is developing a plan to improve forecasts of hurricane intensity. " We need to be able to distinguish the storms that will really hurt people," he said.
In a season that saw meteorologists run through the alphabetical list of storm names by mid-October and then resort to the Greek alphabet, 13 tropical storms strengthened to hurricanes. Seven of those became major hurricanes with winds in excess of 111 mph.
Although none made landfall at top strength, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma all became Category 5 storms (with winds in excess of 155 mph). In terms of low pressure at their core, Wilma was the most intense on record while Katrina ranked sixth and Rita fourth.
"Arguably, it was the most devastating hurricane season the country has experienced in modern times," said Lautenbacher, a retired Navy vice admiral who is also undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.
All of those intense storms - along with a fourth major storm, Category 4 Dennis - hit the U.S. coastline.
Katrina's huge wind field and massive storm surge swept across more than 120 miles of the Gulf Coast - from south of New Orleans to Biloxi, Miss. - on Aug. 29, leaving more than 1,300 dead and damage that's estimated at between $80 billion and $100 billion. That makes it the costliest storm in U.S. history and the third deadliest, behind only the toll of the 1900 storm that killed an estimated 8,000 at Galveston, Texas, and an 1928 hurricane that claimed more than 1,800 lives in south Florida.
Katrina was followed less than a month later by Rita, which came ashore near the Texas-Louisiana line and wiped out most of what Katrina had spared in lower Louisiana.
After taking hits from three major hurricanes last year, Florida, in July, was walloped by Dennis, landing near Pensacola with 120 mph-plus winds, and endured an even nastier cross-state punch from Wilma, which made landfall near Everglades City Oct. 24 with winds also in excess of 120 mph.
The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season marked the ninth "above average" season in 11 years, and underscores that the region is in the middle of an active phase for tropical storms that is likely to continue for at least another decade, forecasters say.
Optimal conditions for spawning hurricanes - favorable winds carrying tropical waves from Africa, Atlantic sea surface temperatures two or three degrees above normal and lower vertical wind shear across the tropics - have been in the Atlantic almost constantly since 1995.
Although several climate researchers have published papers in recent months suggesting the intensity and perhaps the frequency of tropical storms around the world might be enhanced by rising global temperatures, NOAA officials discount any such effect.
"Everything that's happening with the conditions that produced this cycle of storms and the intensity of those storms is consistent with this multi-decadal pattern that we know has been present in the Atlantic for at least the past 150 years," said Gerry Bell, the lead meteorologist in charge of seasonal hurricane forecasts at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.
"There's nothing to suggest that greenhouse warming plays any part in it - we know exactly why the ocean temperatures are warmer than normal - because we've got records going back 120 years that show it's happened repeatedly before."
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