Hurricane season ends with barely a whimper

Published 3:26 pm Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Atlantic hurricane season ended Monday with barely a whimper: Not a single hurricane came ashore in the United States.

Since June, when the season began, just nine named storms developed. Only three of them became hurricanes, and those stayed out at sea or weakened before passing over land.

Two tropical storms made landfall in the U.S., causing little more than rain and some beach erosion.

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“We had a great, great year,” said Chris Vecsey, a salesman at Top Gun Tackle in Orange Beach, Ala., near where Tropical Storm Ida slogged ashore in November. “Last year we had Gustav and Ike and a couple of other storms that didn’t even hit here. And with all the hype, it ruined us. It just didn’t happen this year.”

The 2009 season was on target with the lower end of forecasters’ predictions. Before the season began June 1, the National Hurricane Center had anticipated nine to 14 storms, with four to seven hurricanes — a prediction that the Miami-based center scaled back slightly in August before the arrival of the season’s first storm, Tropical Storm Ana.

James Franklin, the center’s chief hurricane specialist, credited much of the quiet season to El Nino, the periodic warming of the central Pacific Ocean. El Nino, he said, produced strong winds in the Atlantic that cut down storms before they could develop into hurricanes.

Franklin said forecasters also noticed drier conditions in the atmosphere, which limited the potential for storms.

“Lately we’ve had busy seasons,” Franklin said. “To get a year this quiet, it’s a little bit unusual.”

The 2009 hurricane season was the quietest since 2006, which also had nine total storms and five hurricanes, none of which made landfall in the U.S.

To find a season with fewer storms, you have to look back to 1997. That year, there were just seven storms, including three hurricanes. One of them, Hurricane Danny, killed at least nine people as it stalled over the Alabama coast and flooded parts of the Carolinas, causing $100 million in damage.

The 2009 season was not all mild. Tropical Storm Claudette poured up to 4.5 inches of rain when it made landfall at Fort Walton Beach on the Florida Panhandle in August, then quickly fizzled. Also in August, Hurricane Bill, a large Category 4 storm, was blamed for the deaths of two swimmers in Florida and Maine as it passed the East Coast.

Ida was a hurricane but weakened to a tropical storm before it came ashore in Alabama about three weeks ago. Its remnants swept up the East Coast, bringing heavy rain and flooding from the Carolinas to New Jersey.

The third 2009 hurricane, Fred, fizzled in the ocean without touching land.

Don Langham, emergency operations director for Jackson County on the Mississippi coast, said Ida’s late arrival was a good wake-up call for residents after what had proven to be a tranquil hurricane season.

“That’s why they say the season never ends until Nov. 30,” Langham said. “It was a good little test run.”

After suffering the brunt of punishing hurricanes such as Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav and Ike in 2008, residents of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts were grateful for this year’s break. Not everybody is ready to declare the 2009 season over.

In Pensacola Beach, Fla., which was devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2004, Sam Boutwell said he’s not counting on a storm-free winter.

“There is always that chance,” Boutwell said Monday as he worked at the beachside pier renting fishing poles and tackle to tourists. “We have had out-of-season storms.”

Meanwhile, several state and local emergency officials said quiet hurricane seasons make them worry that coastal residents will take the threat less seriously in 2010.

“They’re going to be more complacent next year, and that’s something we need to keep in mind,” said Mark Cooper, director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Still, the peaceful 2009 season turned out to be a well-timed blessing for Patrick Keene and his wife, Kathie, who are rebuilding a home in Pascagoula, Miss., that was demolished by Hurricane Katrina.

Ida passed without disrupting construction, and Keene said he expects to move in well before the next hurricane season. His newly fortified home is made of concrete rather than wood and sits six feet higher off the ground than his old house.

“We all realize that our days are numbered,” Keene said. “It’s just a matter of time before you get another one.”