Hurricane experts fear intense season

Apr 1, 2008

South-Florida Sun-Sentinel–Apr. 1, 2008

By Ken Kaye
South Florida Sun-Sentinel


More than 1,400 emergency managers, government officials and others involved in tropical disasters have converged on Orlando this week for the National Hurricane Conference to prepare for what may be a devastating storm season.

Hailing from Florida and other hurricane-vulnerable states from Rhode Island to Texas, they will attend hours of workshops and lectures on preparedness, storm dangers and recovery operations, so they can be on top of their game when the Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1.

Because experts say the Atlantic basin remains in an era of heightened intensity, characterized by abnormally warm ocean temperatures, many of those attending the five-day conference fear this could be a rough year.

"I’m nervous," said Tim Ocnaschek, emergency management director for Beaumont, Texas. He added that the emergence of La Niña, an atmospheric condition that nurtures storm formation, could make matters even worse.

"All you need is one hurricane, and you’ve had a bad year," said Rick Shimer of Orlando-based ETC Simulation, a private firm that provides emergency training through computerized hurricane simulations. "Under that definition, odds are we’ll probably have a bad year."

Even officials in Rhode Island, a state that hasn’t experienced a hurricane since 1994, are a bit worried. The problem, said James Lowrimore, emergency management director of Portsmouth, R.I., is that New Englanders are easily caught by surprise.

"The hurricanes seem to get here much faster than people think they will," he said.

On the other hand, in light of two relatively quiet seasons in 2006 and 2007, other conference participants are hopeful this year will be another tropical cakewalk. Only one hurricane has struck the U.S. coastline in the past two years, and that was Category 1 Humberto, which slogged ashore in Texas last September.

"I think we’re going to get some storms, but we got hit too many years back to back, so we should get off easy," said Maria Otero, chief of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Protection in Miami.

"I’m hopeful we have a quiet season because we got beat up pretty good in Katrina, and we still need some time to rebuild," said Douglas Lee, a computer systems assistant with the U.S. Air Force in Biloxi, Miss., referring to Hurricane Katrina, which battered New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005.

Despite the era of intensity, it is entirely possible the United States — and Florida — could escape a hurricane strike during the coming six-month storm season, said John Wilson, Lee County’s public safety director.

However, for that to happen, some or all of the atmospheric factors that protected Florida and most of the nation in 2006 and 2007 would have to return, Wilson said. Primarily, that would include a strong ridge of high pressure over the western Atlantic, known as the Bermuda High, which pushed storms to the south of Florida.

"That high-pressure system was blamed for bringing us the drought," said Wilson, who is serving as vice chairman of the hurricane conference. "But it was the same thing that saved us."

This year’s conference some big names in the fields of tropical forecasting and emergency management. Among the keynote speakers are Bill Read, the new director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade County; Craig Fugate, Florida’s emergency management director; and R. David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Max Mayfield, a former director of the hurricane center, is conference chairman.

Even though 2008 ultimately might turn out to be another easy year, officials and residents of at-risk areas like Florida should assume it won’t be, cautioned Sylvester Ford, a manager with the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

"Be prepared," he said. "You have to be ready."