By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009 2:08 PM
The first this year will be christened Ana. There could be as many as 14 more. And some of those might be deadly and destructive.
Government weather officials announced today that there is a good chance that the 2009 hurricane season, which starts June 1, could have between nine and 14 named tropical storms. Four to seven of them could become hurricanes, with as many as three reaching the dangerous Category 3 level or higher on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.
Dire as it sounds, and as unpredictable as the storms can be, the forecast calls for a largely normal hurricane season this year. But officials at a morning press briefing in a cavernous airplane hangar at Reagan National Airport stressed that, with hurricanes, "normal" can still be deadly.
"It needs to be put in perspective," said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, noting that about 1,000 people died in tropical cyclones last year.
There were 16 named storms last year, eight of them hurricanes, and five of them major, with winds of 111 mph or more, Read said. An average season has 11 storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.
"Hurricanes will make landfall in the United States," FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate warned. "Hurricanes will destroy homes. People need to heed the . . . message" and be prepared.
Gerry Bell, lead hurricane forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said officials based their hurricane predictions on, among other things, three often competing indicators.
The first is a set of conditions that stretches over decades, of which we're somewhere in the middle. This is responsible for what Bell said was the active hurricane era we've been in since 1995. The signal reflects tropical rainfall and Atlantic Ocean temperature patterns that can last from 25 to 40 years at a time. He said the Atlantic is now 14 years into the current "high activity" era, with no ending in sight.
The second factor involves El Niño, the phenomenon in which warmer waters occur in the Pacific Ocean off Central and South America. If El Niño develops, as some forecasts predict, it could suppress hurricane activity, Bell said.
The third factor is the currently cooler water in the eastern tropical Atlantic Ocean, in the hurricane breeding ground off West Africa, which could last through hurricane season. "Cooler waters would also tend to suppress the hurricane activity."
"Presently, most of the ocean temperature projections suggest the Atlantic season will not stray too far from normal," he said.
Bell said that experts will continue monitoring conditions and that the government will have an updated hurricane forecast in early August, just before the hurricane season peaks.
"Remember," he cautioned. The forecast is "a general guide to the overall expected activity." It does not predict hurricane landfalls.
"Where and when a hurricane strikes really depends on the weather patterns in place at the time the hurricane is approaching," he said. "Those weather patterns just are not predictable more than about five to seven days in advance."