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Stormy forecasts as hurricane season arrives

By Anthony R. Wood | The Philadelphia Inquirer

One early June, a modest storm spun up off the coast of Mexico, tracked through Florida's "Redneck Riviera," crossed the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and headed to obscurity in the North Atlantic.

It was not memorable, but when Allison became a named storm on June 3, 1995, it marked the beginning of a historic hurricane era. And the mid-Atlantic and Northeast are still recovering from the most recent progeny, Sandy.

Hurricane experts now know that in 1995, an "active" tropical-cyclone period got underway in the Atlantic Basin, which includes the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and which shows no sign of abating.

With the hurricane season officially opening Saturday, forecasters are universally forecasting a busy season with above-average numbers of named storms, those with winds over 39 m.p.h.; hurricanes, with winds of at least 74 m.p.h.; and "major" hurricanes, winds of 111 m.p.h. or better.

The season has the potential, at least, of heaping more debt on the red-ink swamped National Flood Insurance Program, which is underwritten by the U.S. Treasury.

Before Sandy, the program was hopelessly in debt -- almost $18 billion worth -- and the bills for Sandy alone could reach $15 billion. With little expectation that premiums can repay the debt, U.S. taxpayers are likely to become the sugar daddies.

That 1995 season was the first year of billion-dollar losses for the program. Katrina added more than $16 billion in 2005, and when the final losses are tabulated, Sandy might make a run at that figure.

Meanwhile, the government has shelled out more than $120 billion in disaster payments since 1995, most of that driven by hurricane damage.

Regardless of the numbers of storms, the potential losses would have everything to do with landfalls. As Sandy showed -- and Andrew in August 1992 -- it takes only one to roll up hefty damages.

AccuWeather Inc. has said it expects three hurricanes to make U.S. landfall, but experts generally caution that predicting landfalls is out of the range of their abilities.

They are confident that the Atlantic Basin will have seen brisk traffic by the time the season ends Nov. 30.

One big factor is the active cycle itself, which hurricane researchers attribute to a mouthful called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. The basin evidently goes through lulls and active periods that can occur in 15- to 30-year cycles. Those cycles are evident in the hurricane records.

During the 1940s, 22 hurricanes made U.S. landfall; in the 1970s, only 12.

The lull cycle that occurred from about 1970 to 1994 coincided with an incredible coastal building boom. That, in turn, had a lot to do with the staggering accumulation of disaster and flood-insurance costs.

As for the specifics of this year's outlooks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the odds favor 13 to 20 named storms, with seven to 11 hurricanes, and three to six major hurricanes.

The seasonal averages are 12 named storms with six hurricanes and three majors.

NOAA has cited a brisk West African monsoon, which favors hurricane activity, and warmer-than-normal sea-surface temperatures.

Meteorologists at AccuWeather; WSI Corp., a private service in Massachusetts; and Colorado State University have issued outlooks that all appear ominously similar.

AccuWeather, WSI, and Colorado State all are going with 16 named storms. AccuWeather sees eight hurricanes and four majors; WSI, nine hurricanes and five majors; and Colorado, nine and four.

Last year, the outlooks had a so-so season. All four of them called for near-normal storm numbers and hurricane numbers. But a total of 19 storms merited names, and 10 of those grew into hurricanes.

No one on the East or Gulf Coasts would complain if the 2013 forecasts were wrong in the other direction.

Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or ___