It is almost time for John Rumble to put away the plywood sheets that covered the windows of his home, to start drinking the extra water he had stocked in his pantry, to stop watching the Weather Channel quite so avidly. On Tuesday, the long, nerve-racking, quirk-filled hurricane season of 1999 will finally draw to a close.

That would be not a minute too soon for Rumble, who, like many Miamians living in this prime hurricane zone, gets frayed nerves as the season progresses.

In fact, however, it may be that the worst is yet to come, stretching several decades into the future. William Gray, one of the country's prominent hurricane forecasters, announced last week from his admittedly offshore location at Colorado State University that a new era of intense hurricane activity is about to unfold. Likely to be hit more than ever, he said, will be the Caribbean islands, the East Coast of the United States and the Florida peninsula.

The last intense era of hurricane activity ended in the 1960s, Gray said, when Florida and the East Coast were not nearly so extensively developed. During the relatively quiet period that stretched from 1970 to 1994, more people were lured to the shoreline, and many more homes and businesses in prime waterfront locations are in jeopardy today.

"If this new period of increased landfalling storms is now with us, it could pose serious threats to safety and to property for the country," Gray said.

The reasons for the renewed activity involve several "climate signals" that have been reliable indicators in the past, he said, including above average sea temperatures in the North Atlantic and above average rainfall in Africa. For the past two busy seasons, the presence of La Nina, the mass of cold water in the eastern equatorial Pacific, has managed to keep at bay the wind shear that helps to weaken strong hurricanes.

As evidence that this new era could already be underway, Gray pointed out that during the five-year period from 1990 to 1994, there were only five major storms in the Atlantic and Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico with wind speeds that exceeded 110 mph, or ranked as Categories 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. During the past five seasons since then, there have been 20 such storms, a fourfold increase.

Gray's is the kind of forecast that sends Rumble, special projects coordinator for the Village of Miami Shores, into early denial. "Those long-term predictions, I always take them with a grain of salt," he said, mindful of the glancing blow by Hurricane Irene in October that still left his crews with 350 additional loads of debris to clean up.

But no one can fault Gray's degree of accuracy, at least not in the season just winding up. Earlier this year, he predicted there would be 14 named storms in 1999, nine of them hurricanes. Four of those hurricanes would be intense, he predicted.

The final count: 12 named storms, with eight of them qualifying as hurricanes. Five of those hurricanes were major. Gray's predictions for 2000 will be released next year.

At the National Hurricane Center here, allies applaud Gray's accuracy this season, and feel relief that a trying period is almost over.

"We put in a lot of overtime," said hurricane specialist Jack Beven. "The season did have some meteorological quirks."

It began with tropical storm Arlene in June, which formed in an unusual position for so early in the season southeast of Bermuda, and ended with Lenny in mid-November, which made an eastward track through the Caribbean that had not been seen in a storm so late in the season since record-keeping began in 1886, Beven said. Floyd was the strongest, maxing out at 155 mph when it was situated east of the Bahamas, and later spawned the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history as it raked its way up the East Coast. Flooding brought by its heavy rains produced the costliest disaster in North Carolina history, estimated at more than $2 billion.

The earlier Dennis was the storm that would not go away, menacing the Outer Banks of North Carolina for days as it dawdled off the coast, refusing to disappear out to sea.

Its torrential rains set the stage for Floyd's flooding. And Bret in August, powering ashore at 150 mph, was the strongest to make landfall in the United States this year; its destination ended up, mercifully, being a big cattle pasture.

Throughout the season, vacation plans were shattered by approaching storms, and families accumulated nightmare stories of being trapped in their cars along stalled evacuation routes leaving Jacksonville, Fla., and Charleston, S.C. No one, really, could feel any nostalgia for the season past.

Certainly not Miami Shores delicatessen owner Norberto Belez, who frets throughout the hurricane season that long power outages could cost him his refrigerated food and precious days of business.


Name: Bret

Dates: Aug. 18-23

Category: 4

Name: Cindy

Dates: Aug. 19-31

Category: 4

Name: Dennis

Dates: Aug. 24-Sept. 5

Category: 2

Name: Floyd

Dates: Sept. 7-17

Category: 4

Name: Gert

Dates: Sept. 11-21

Category: 4

Name: Irene

Dates: Oct. 13-19

Category: 2

Name: Jose

Dates: Oct. 17-25

Category: 2

Name: Lenny

Dates: Nov. 13-25

Category: 4

Damage potential by Saffir-Simpson scale category: (1) minimal, (2) moderate, (3) extensive, (4) extreme, (5) catastrophic.

SOURCE: Unisys