Atlantic hurricane season approaches

By Curt Chapman
Staff Writer
Posted 5/25/07

With NOAA forecasters predicting that 13-17 named storms will form in the Atlantic Basin during the 2007 Hurricane Season, which begins Friday and ends Nov. 30, it’s important to prepare now, and then listen to emergency management officials when …

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Atlantic hurricane season approaches


With NOAA forecasters predicting that 13-17 named storms will form in the Atlantic Basin during the 2007 Hurricane Season, which begins Friday and ends Nov. 30, it’s important to prepare now, and then listen to emergency management officials when a storm approaches.

Now is the time to review your preparedness plans and make sure you can survive on your own for 72 hours after a hurricane or tropical storm moves through the coastal area. Although local, state and federal officials say they are better prepared than ever before to respond to a disaster, most say they cannot begin to take action before inclement weather has moved on.

“Have enough provisions to last three days on your own,” said Randy McKee, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Mobile. “To borrow a phrase from the Escambia County (Fla.) Emergency Management Agency, ‘the first 72 is on you.’”

McKee said no one should expect utility companies to restore power immediately, and in some cases, it could take days, or even weeks, before electricity is restored. He added, “Don’t expect too much from others. They’ve got higher priorities than seeing we have diesel to run our generators, or ice.”

Just as the Federal Emergency Management Agency is rethinking post-Katrina procedures on a day-to-day basis, NWS is tweaking the way it does things. Most of those changes have been internal, he said, from beefing up the staff to examining backup procedures in several areas, including communications.

“We’re hitting it a bit harder this year,” McKee said of the effort to inform folks to be prepared in the event a dangerous storm takes aim at the Gulf Coast. “We hope people will take it more seriously.”

The veteran forecaster, who plans to retire in two months, said no one should let their guard down just because the United States got a reprieve in 2006.

“We just dodged a bullet last year,” McKee said. “We’re likely to see above average activity in the Atlantic Basin this year. Where they go depends on steering currents.”

Wind shear created by the weather phenomenon known as El Nino “tore the storms apart last year before they got going,” he said. “But, we’re in this cycle that could last several decades. That’s enough to make any forecaster come up with numbers higher than normal.”

An increase in tropical activity began in 1995. Most forecasters say such a trend has been seen before, and is not something tied to global warming. Because conditions this year indicate another active season, officials recommend learning the different terms used in referring to approaching storms.

“Watches and warnings are pretty much the same,” McKee said. “A watch is a longer range forecast to alert people of the possibility. It’s not a certainty. It’s a longer time from when the event is expected, not a short fuse. It’s meant to heighten your awareness. A warning means severe weather is imminent. It’s not a possibility. We know it’s going to happen.”

He pointed out that something new coastal residents might see if tropical weather heads our way is something called an extreme wind warning.

“The summer before Katrina, we issued tornado warnings for the eyewall around storms,” McKee said. “Now we offer specific wind forecasts to let people know where the highest winds might be. The tornado warnings were used first, but they were kind of a misnomer. Now we call them extreme wind warnings.”

The area up to 200 miles away from the eye of a hurricane might have the strongest winds, he said, and with the new type of warning, forecasters can name an area, such as Fort Morgan or Point Clear, and indicate the strength of winds expected there over a specific time period.

McKee cautions those living right on the coast, and those living in mobile homes, to pay particular attention to evacuation orders. He said, “You need to get to someplace sturdier.”

Although there is no sign El Nino might save us again, anything is possible. McKee said, “Right now it’s kind of just wait and see if we’ll get lucky again this year.”

NOAA uses a historical probability tool called the Hurricane Return Period to statistically track the strength of hurricanes and the frequency they strike within 75 miles of a certain location. If an area has a return period of 20 years for a Category 3 hurricane (on the Saffir-Simpson Scale), it means that on average, a Category 3 storm will pass through five times during a 100-year period.

If you’re keeping score, the Alabama coast return periods are: Category 1, 10 years; Category 2, 21 years; Category 3, 33 years; Category 4, 62 years; and Category 5, 140 years.