Along the U.S. coast, residents are grateful for what proved to be a weak hurricane season

Published 7:03 pm Friday, October 27, 2006

With last year’s ruinous hurricanes fresh in her mind, Beth Aroyo stocked up last spring on dried food, canned goods and lots of bottled water. She ended up pouring the water into her pool and donating most of the food to the needy.

Dire predictions that this would be another brutal hurricane season failed to come true. So far, with just one month left, there have been only nine named storms, and not a single hurricane has hit the U.S. mainland.

Across the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the tranquil season has brought powerful relief and few regrets about the millions of dollars spent on stepped-up preparations.

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“It’s the price we pay to live in paradise,” said Aroyo, who lives in suburban Coral Springs. “We may need it next year, we may not. It’s like buying insurance.”

At the Fair Grinds Coffee House in New Orleans, owner Robert Thompson welcomes the serenity as he struggles to get back in business after Hurricane Katrina, the worst of last year’s record-breaking 28 named storms.

“It’s kind of unnerving,” he said. “It’s almost like we got a pass after the trauma of last year.”

Back in May, the National Hurricane Center predicted 13 to 16 named storms for the 2006 Atlantic season that ends Nov. 30, while top researchers at Colorado State University forecast 17.

Now, experts say a warm-water trend in the Pacific known as El Nino developed more rapidly than expected this summer, suppressing the formation of storms in the Atlantic and creating more crosswinds that can rip hurricanes apart. Also, upper-level air currents pushed most of this year’s five hurricanes out to sea, away from the U.S. mainland.

El Ninos are known to occur every three to seven years, but sometimes they “come on quickly and sometimes they come on slowly,” said Colorado State researcher Philip Klotzbach. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know a whole lot about what goes into it.”

After the trauma of last year and 2004, more money and effort went into preparations this year than ever before along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency added some 3,000 “surge” employees to help the agency respond quickly and in force to hurricanes, and it tripled to 20,000 the number of businesses contracted to inspect damaged homes.

Heeding stern warnings from public officials to prepare for the next storm, tens of thousands of homeowners and businesses bought generators, storm shutters and other supplies, such as self-heating meals and bottled water.

NOAA and Colorado State hope to improve their computer models to forecast El Ninos with more accuracy. In the meantime, forecasters and disaster officials are warning homeowners not to let themselves be lulled into a false sense of security.

“The problem with hurricanes is that people are very shortsighted,” said Mark Goodman, emergency management director in Onslow County, N.C. “We anticipate more storms, more frequency of severe storms, probably for the next 15 years.”

In New Orleans, retired bellhop Anthony Pacely said he is praying for another long, quiet spell like the one between Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Katrina.

“It took 40 years for another one,” he said. “I hope God is looking at it that way, too.”

On the Net:

National Hurricane Center:

Colorado State Tropical Meteorology Project: