Amid all the death and destruction caused this year by hurricanes, national weather experts have this advice: Get used to it.
"We have now entered a multi-decade cycle in which we expect hurricanes to be more intense and more frequent," said Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of geology at Queens College in New York who has spent years examining the history and dynamics of hurricanes. His studies have convinced him that the chances of a major hurricane striking the populous northern Atlantic coast, from Virginia through New England, are increasing.
A major storm hitting "one of our urban centers is in our future," said Coch, who is scheduled to speak tomorrow night at Howard Community College in Columbia. "When it happens, it's going to make Katrina look like a party."
Local disaster officials agree with Coch's ominous assessment.
"It's only a matter of time that we are the recipient of a catastrophic storm," said James D. Weed, director of the Anne Arundel County Office of Emergency Management. "I'll be around to see this."
Coch teaches at Queens, lectures around the country and appears as a weather expert on television. He is coming to Howard County at the invitation of Vladimir G. Marinich, a social sciences professor at the community college.
Coch doesn't care for his nicknames: Dr. Doom and Master of Disaster. But he said knowledge of the past has spurred his dire warnings.
"You can't argue with history. As generations go by, we forget our history."
Coch and other national weather experts say the Atlantic basin has experienced cycles of strong, frequent storms that have been documented since the late 19th century. The cycle occurs about every 25 to 30 years in the Atlantic basin, but the reasons are not clearly understood. Evidence from ocean sediments indicates that the weather pattern may date back centuries.
Major hurricanes are those ranked Category 3 or above on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with a Category 5 storm being the most severe.
Unlike a growing number of scientists who blame human-induced global warming, Coch is hesitant to cite it as a significant factor in the recent spate of major hurricanes. "To me what we're seeing is a normal cycle possibly accentuated by human activity," he said. Other weather experts, such as William M. Gray, a researcher at Colorado State University, are skeptical as well.
"Don't blame anybody for it," said Gray, who has been studying hurricanes for nearly 50 years. "This is just nature doing its thing."
The current pattern of intense, frequent storms began about 1995 and probably will last 15 to 20 years more, said Chris Landsea, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. With four weeks to go until the official end of the 2005 hurricane season, this year has been a record-setter, he said. There have been 23 named storms in the Atlantic basin, which includes the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Thirteen became hurricanes, with four of them making landfall in the United States and a fifth brushing the North Carolina coast.
Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in late August, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, "was a turning point in disasters in America," Coch said. "A hurricane was no longer a local event. It was a national event," he said.
Katrina's impact was seen in the loss of more than 1,300 lives, the displacement of more than 1 million people and widespread destruction of homes and businesses. The storm also caused a national spike in gasoline prices and in the cost of commodities shipped through the Port of New Orleans.
Even so, Katrina was not the worst example of a hurricane inflicting a fierce blow to a densely populated region. For that, Coch looks back decades to an unnamed Category 3 hurricane that crossed Long Island on Sept. 21, 1938, struck cities in five New England states and, traveling at 60 mph, reached Montreal in less than 24 hours. The storm killed 600 people and cut off nearly all communication to the New England region for a week.
"That's what I call the big one," he said.
Local emergency management officials say they're getting the message and reexamining how they would handle a major hurricane. They recall how Isabel, considered only a tropical storm when it reached the region two years ago, caused extensive wind damage, days-long power outages and significant flooding as it moved up the Chesapeake Bay.
"You know what? We need to be planning for a bigger disaster," said Joseph Herr, chief of Howard fire and rescue services.
In Anne Arundel, officials must address the complicated logistics of evacuating waterfront communities and facilitating the evacuation of Eastern Shore residents over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Plans call for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which links the Delmarva Peninsula and the Virginia mainland, to be closed during an emergency storm evacuation.
"We recognize from our county's standpoint that we are vulnerable," Weed said.
In Prince George's County, officials are stressing that residents should have enough resources on hand to get by on their own for at least three days.
"It may be that long before someone can help them out," said county spokesman James P. Keary. "This is for any type of disaster."
Coch, who has worked as a consultant with insurance companies after hurricanes, criticizes the "lunacy" of dense development along shorelines. But as a beach lover, he recently purchased a vacation home in Suffolk County on Long Island, N.Y. -- a home situated a mile and a half from the shore and 75 feet above sea level. He was happy to learn during his research that Suffolk has a wind code for construction and that the beams of his house are reinforced with metal straps from the roof down to the concrete foundation.
"I'm taking my chances, but I'm minimizing them by making an educated analysis," he said. "I have done all I ask people to do -- understand, look at history and build in keeping with nature."
Coch is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. in the Burrill Galleria of the Science and Technology Building at Howard Community College. For more information, call 410-772-4946.