NORFOLK, Va. -- A wet weather pattern expected to form soon in West Africa may trigger powerful hurricanes for two decades or more in coastal communities from Maine to Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico, say researchers.
The weather pattern could bring a major hurricane every year to North America, as it did in the 1940s and 1950s, when heavy rains fell in West Africa, Colorado State University meteorologist William Gray said yesterday.
From 1947 to 1969, during a period of wet weather in West Africa, 18 major hurricanes struck the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. From 1970 to 1987, during a period of dry weather there, nine major hurricanes reached North American coasts. The West Africa weather cycles usually last 15 to 25 years.
A "wet phase" is expected to return soon, National Hurricane Center Director Robert C. Sheets told meteorologists and civic planners yesterday in Norfolk at the 14th Annual National Hurricane Conference. The theme of the three-day conference is a warning in itself: "Get Ready for More and Bigger Hurricanes."
Mr. Gray's research is being taken seriously by the conference participants, who worry that most coastal communities are not prepared to evacuate the millions of people who have moved to the East and South in the last few decades. About 44 million people live in hurricane-prone areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, compared with slightly more than 10 million in 1900.
There are more and better roads to evacuate these people, but not enough of them, said Donald C. Lewis, a Tallahassee, Fla., traffic engineer who studies hurricane-evacuation routes.
Mr. Sheets said he worries that because hurricanes have been relatively rare since 1970, people who live in hurricane-prone areas don't take the storms seriously.