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Atlantic Primed for Heavy Storms

Times Staff Writer

With the onset of the 2005 hurricane season little more than two weeks away, meteorologists Friday warned that conditions in the Atlantic again were ripe for spawning tropical storms that could slam into Florida or other parts of the Eastern U.S. or Gulf Coast with potentially devastating and deadly consequences.

Last season, Florida was hit by four hurricanes in six weeks, an unprecedented succession of natural disasters in the state that was blamed for 123 deaths and more than $42 billion in property damage.

Although predicting precisely where and when storms will make landfall is impossible, forecasters attending Florida’s 19th annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference agreed that the Atlantic Ocean was in the throes of an active period that could last two decades or more, and that the resulting increase in the number of tropical storms heightened the chance of one or more reaching the United States.

“We’re in a new era now, and we’re going to see a lot more major storms,” said William Gray, a professor in Colorado State University’s department of atmospheric science, who issues a much-awaited yearly prediction of hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin.

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The most recent calculations by Gray and his research associate Philip J. Klotzbach, presented on the final day of the conference, call for a 73% chance that a major hurricane -- defined as one carrying sustained winds of 111 mph or more -- will hit the U.S. coast between June 1 and November 30.

There was a 53% chance of a major hurricane making landfall this year in the Florida peninsula, they said, and a 41% likelihood of one coming ashore somewhere along the Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle to Texas.

“Right now, the Atlantic looks very favorable for storms,” Klotzbach told the conference. “The sea surface temperatures are incredibly warm, much warmer than normal, and the sea-level pressures have been quite low.”

Max Mayfield -- director of the National Hurricane Center -- alerted the 2,900 government officials, emergency responders, representatives of private charities and others attending the weeklong event that they might be in for another very busy hurricane season.

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“I can tell you that we have had more tropical storms, and more hurricanes, since 1995 than any other 10-consecutive-year period on record,” Mayfield said Wednesday. “So folks, we’re in this active period, like it or not.”

Gray explained that the rising salinity of a vast stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, caused by evaporation, was making a wide current flow north, pulling warmer water from the South Atlantic and tropics. The added heat carried by that water, he said, is excellent for helping spawn hurricanes.

The existence of the salty current correlates with periods of intense hurricane activity, Gray said. The last active phase lasted from the 1930s to the mid-'60s. The Atlantic, he said, was relatively quiet from the late 1960s to the mid-'90s.

“In a way, you didn’t know how lucky you all living in Florida were,” Gray told the conference, which Gov. Jeb Bush attended Wednesday. Gray predicted a “bleak picture” in terms of increased major hurricane activity for the next 15 to 20 years. The former Air Force weather forecaster said that he did not think the added storm activity was because of global warming, but that it was the result of natural processes.

Gray has been issuing his seasonal forecasts since 1984. Last year, he accurately predicted there would be 14 tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic, and forecast eight hurricanes (there were nine) and three major hurricanes (there were six).

His most recent forecast, which will be tweaked in the days before the season’s onset to take into account the El Nino current in the Pacific and other meteorological influences, called for seven Atlantic hurricanes in the coming season -- including three major ones.

“He is one of the pioneers,” Ben Nelson, state meteorologist with the Florida division of emergency management, said of Gray. “His accuracy over the years as far as the number of storms has increased his credibility.”

The Tampa conference -- which organizers said was the largest meeting ever devoted to hurricanes in the United States -- was meant to share the lessons learned from the response and relief efforts last year to hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

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“Florida got through ‘The Four’ of 2004,” Dr. John Agwunobi, state secretary of Health, said Friday. “We’ll get through whatever is thrown at us in 2005.” He acknowledged, however, that when satellite photographs revealed the white whorl of the first tropical depression to form this season somewhere at sea, he would be among the many Floridians feeling a “twisting sensation” in their stomachs.

Bush said one of the main lessons learned last year was that Florida was not immune to hurricanes. Until then, the last hurricane to plow ashore had been Andrew in 1992.

“One thing that we know for certain now is that when people say: ‘If a hurricane hits us,’ we immediately tell them, ‘No no, it’s when,’ ” Bush said.


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