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Forecasters Say Fierce Storm Season Has Scarcely Begun : Weather: Experts say the peak period of activity is just beginning and seven storms have been named. Hurricane Felix is nearing the North Carolina coast.


MIAMI — As Hurricane Felix chased tens of thousands of vacationers and residents from the barrier islands of the eastern United States on Tuesday--and as Bermuda mopped up after a close call--forecasters warned that the 1995 storm season, predicted to be one of the fiercest in 20 years, has barely begun.

"We're just starting the peak period of activity, and already we've had seven named storms," said Bob Burpee, director of the National Hurricane Center. "I always say that activity starts picking up around Aug. 10, peaks about Sept. 9 or 10, and then falls off through Oct. 15. So we have a long way to go."

Late Tuesday, the season's sixth tropical storm was approaching the North Carolina coast with 85 m.p.h. winds, threatening to make landfall by this evening. The seventh storm, Gabrielle, moved feebly over the Mexican coast last week and died.

Like Hurricane Erin, which raked Florida with two direct hits earlier this month, Felix was a relatively weak but wide-bodied storm whose chief threat was beach erosion and heavy rainfall.

As large swells began to pound the East Coast from the Carolinas north to New England Tuesday, the islands of the Outer Banks chain were ordered evacuated and lifeguards chased swimmers from the water along thousands of miles of coastline.

"We emptied out," said Sterling Webster, owner and general manager of the Ramada Inn in Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina's Outer Bank. Although skies were sunny and breezes calm Tuesday, Webster added: "Felix is a big fella, with long tentacles, and quite honestly, no one knows what it will do."

Felix had hurricane-strength winds extending 140 miles outward from its center as it approached the coast at 16 m.p.h.

At least three drowning deaths, possibly as a result of the storm-spawned tides, have been reported in North Carolina, and a fourth in Virginia.

Navy warships have begun steaming out of their base in Norfolk, Va., to ride out the storm at sea.

Hurricane warnings alerting residents to an imminent storm were in effect from north of Little River Inlet, S.C., to Chincoteague, Va., an area that includes Albemarle and Pamlico sounds and the lower Chesapeake Bay.

A hurricane watch remained in effect from Little River Inlet southward to Edisto Beach, S.C., and north of Chincoteague to Cape Henlopen, Del. A tropical storm warning was in effect north of Chincoteague to Manasquan Inlet, N.J.

In Bermuda, pummeled by Felix's hurricane winds as the eye passed to the south, trees were uprooted, a causeway linking the airport to the downtown area was washed out and most of the island was without electrical power. A scheduled Tuesday referendum on Bermuda's ties to Britain was postponed.

In a normal hurricane season, 10 storms earn names once they have sustained winds of 39 m.p.h. or higher, and of those, seven grow into hurricanes, with minimum winds of 74 m.p.h.

Well before the season began June 1, the nation's foremost hurricane prognosticator, William M. Gray, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, predicted eight Atlantic or Gulf hurricanes, and four less-powerful tropical storms.

To make predictions, Gray and his colleagues consider rainfall in the Sahel region of West Africa, where the large, late-season storms begin as waves of low pressure, along with ocean temperatures and related winds that can shear, or behead, developing storms.

Once the season was under way, Gray revised his forecast, upping the storm total to 16.

Even more ominous was the warning that at least three of this year's hurricanes would be severe, or Category 3, with sustained winds of at least 111 m.p.h.

"A year this active happens once in every eight or 10 years," Gray said. "And we're just getting into the height of the season."

While not likely to become a Category 3 storm, Felix was pushing strong winds almost 300 miles from its center, and the storm surge was felt from Florida to Maine.

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