U.S. is virtually unscathed by hurricanes in 2007; emergency planners worry about apathy

Published 4:42 pm Thursday, November 29, 2007

Despite alarming predictions, the U.S. came through a second straight hurricane season virtually unscathed, raising fears among emergency planners that they will be fighting public apathy and overconfidence when they warn people to prepare for next year.

Friday marks the official close of the Atlantic season, so unless a storm forms in the next few days, only one hurricane — and a minor one at that — will have hit the U.S. during the June-to-November period. Mexico and Central America, however, were struck by a record two top-scale Category 5 storms.

The preliminary total for the season: 14 named storms, five of them hurricanes, two of them major.

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That was less activity than the government predicted before the season started, and stands in stark contrast to 2004 and 2005, when the U.S. was hit by one devastating storm after another, including Hurricane Katrina.

However, forecasters and emergency managers warned that one result of the good year for the country may be increased skepticism when they urge people to stock up on food and draw up their hurricane evacuation plans for next year.

“Now that we’ve gone a couple of years without major hurricanes will the public be more apathetic before the next hurricane season? The answer is absolutely,” said Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “The further we get away from these types of events … the more complacent people become, and that’s the challenge we have to continue to fight.”

Similarly, Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, said the industry saw about a 20 percent increase in the number of policies sold in Gulf Coast states in the two years after Katrina. But about one in five new policies is not being renewed, he said.

“People believe they’ve rode out the worst of the storm, so to speak,” Hartwig said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

He warned that the failure of homeowners to renew their policies is “a tragedy in the making.”

The season’s 14 named storms were on the low end of the 13 to 17 government scientists predicted. The five hurricanes didn’t reach the seven to 10 forecast. The two major hurricanes were also below the three to five predicted.

Colorado State University weather researcher William Gray was farther off the mark. Before the start of the season, he forecast 17 named storms, including nine hurricanes, five of them major, with a strong chance that a major hurricane would hit the U.S. coast.

Humberto, a Category 1 storm that hit Texas and Louisiana in September, was the first hurricane to strike the U.S. in two years. It was blamed for one death and $30 million in damage.

Gerry Bell, a hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the season was relatively quiet largely because La Nina, a cooling of the water in the Pacific that normally boosts the formation of hurricanes, had weaker-than-expected effects.

The government’s 2006 preseason forecast proved overly pessimistic as well. Scientists predicted 13 to 16 named storms, eight to 10 of them hurricanes, with four to six of them major. Instead, there were nine named storms and five hurricanes, two of them major.

Bell said that this marks the second “near normal” season in a row. However, storm activity tends to go in cycles, and he said the Atlantic is still believed to be in a more active hurricane period that began in 1995.

Forecasters underestimated the 2005 season, which proved the busiest on record, with 28 named storms, including 15 hurricanes, four of which hit the U.S. That year brought Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in American history.

Despite the overpredictions for the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Bell said the government’s forecasts are still valuable, stressing that they remind coastal residents they need to be prepared.

“Generally our forecasts have been very good,” he said.

Mike Stone of the Florida Division of Emergency Management said emergency managers don’t base stockpiles or hurricane preparations on the government’s forecast. Instead, he said, they have standing contracts for ice, meals and other perishables, and they can call on the suppliers when they need the items.

On the Net:

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: http://www.noaa.gov

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov