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The Nation

Hello, Dolly- and More Hurricanes That May Be Coming This Season

June 06, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Arthur. Bertha. Cristobal. Dolly. The names are spelled out in magnetized letters stuck to the wall, like those of children on the first day of elementary school. Between now and the end of November, any of them could become synonymous with destruction, death and heartbreak. For these are the names chosen this year by hurricane forecasters for the storms that can swell to encompass 1 million cubic miles of the Earth's atmosphere, some of the mightiest forces known to nature.

The encouraging news is that the ability of meteorologists to predict a hurricane's path has improved over the last decade, becoming 1% to 2% more accurate each year, said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center near here. The cautionary fact is that more Americans than ever are exposed to the dangers.

From Portland, Maine, to Brownsville, Texas, an estimated 50 million people reside in counties along the shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Add inland areas that could experience high winds or flooding, and the number of people potentially at risk from a hurricane's brute, often lethal, force rises to 150 million.

"As you fly along the U.S. coastline and see the development, you can't but be concerned that we're building for a hurricane disaster," said Mayfield, 53. "One of my greatest fears is that we'll have people in cars caught in gridlock as a major storm makes landfall."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 07, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 200 words Type of Material: Correction
Hurricane Andrew--A caption in Section A accompanying a story Thursday on this summer's hurricane season incorrectly stated that Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in September 1992. Andrew struck in August 1992.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 08, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 262 words Type of Material: Correction
Hurricane season--A graphic with a Section A story Thursday about this year's hurricane season incorrectly stated that hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean travel eastward toward the U.S. They travel westward.

The 2002 Atlantic hurricane season began this month, a time of year when people in Florida and other Atlantic and Gulf Coast states pay special attention to weather bulletins--or are supposed to. It also is a season when Lixion Avila, a forecaster at the hurricane center, must be prudent about his shopping habits. If he shows up at a Home Depot--where many folks stock up on supplies in the event of a major storm--people who know his face from TV might wrongly deduce disaster is imminent.

For the next six months, Avila's job will be studying the warm waters and layers of air in the eastern Atlantic off Africa, where the tropical storms that bloom into hurricanes undergo their genesis. "Now we go into a watching mode," the 51-year-old forecaster said.

Better computer modeling and a probe that can be dropped by a chase plane to measure a storm's wind velocity may have made the predictions of Avila and his colleagues more accurate, but forecasters still cannot be anything approaching precise. Thirty-six hours before a hurricane crashes ashore, its expected track may be off by as much as 150 miles either way, National Hurricane Center spokesman Frank Lepore said. That means those forecasts can be accurate only to within 300 miles--"and that's pretty much the length of the state of Florida," Lepore said.

Of special concern in the Sunshine State is the number of new residents who've never gone though a hurricane--or those who were whipped by the fringes of a storm and emerged believing hurricanes aren't that big a deal.

"I do worry that a whole lot of Floridians have never experienced the kind of storm I personally experienced 10 years ago," Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday in Tallahassee. He spoke at a meeting at the capital of state agency heads called to discuss hurricane preparedness.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew--rated a Category 4 on the 5-point scale--ripped into Florida south of Miami like a buzz saw, with winds gusting to 200 mph. By the time it plowed across the state to the Gulf, Andrew had destroyed property worth $30.5 billion and killed 43 people. About 140,000 homes, mobile homes and apartments were damaged or pounded into rubble, and 160,000 people were evacuated.

Florida's Republican governor was a Miami real estate developer at the time. The younger brother of President Bush recalled how he rode out Andrew, hunkered down at 1:30 a.m. in the hallway of his home with his wife, their three children, his mother-in-law, another family and two dogs. "It felt like the house was going to implode," Bush said. "I've never experienced anything like that before, and it was just a very scary thing."

With the most recent hurricane to touch the United States dating back to September 1999--when Hurricane Floyd flooded North Carolina and other mid- and northern Atlantic states--many Americans may be tempted to underestimate the threat.

A group of professional hurricane watchers at Colorado State University is predicting a "reasonably active" storm season this year, with a 63% probability that one or more major hurricanes will hit somewhere along the coast of the United States.

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