MIAMI -- Disaster planners at the National Hurricane Center warned yesterday that "a very active hurricane season is looming" and outlined an improved system for tracking storms and helping people in their paths.
After last year's series of record-shattering storms, a new tracking center has been put in service, another weather satellite launched, more forecasters hired and the volume of emergency relief supplies at the ready tripled.
While the season that begins June 1 isn't expected to be as ferocious as last year's, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate that 13 to 16 named storms will form over the North Atlantic during the next six months.
Eight to 10 of them are predicted to be hurricanes, of which four to six will be Category Three or higher, meaning sustained winds upward of 111 mph.
"The ultimate question is whether storms will make landfall. But that can't be predicted this far in advance," said retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., NOAA administrator. He said that, based on recent experience, it is "statistically within reason that two to four hurricanes could affect the United States."
A record 28 named storms walloped the region last year, including 15 hurricanes, four of which struck the U.S. Southeast, devastating New Orleans and vast swaths of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico and Florida.
Still, the frequency and intensity of storms predicted for this June through November exceed average annual activity, based on the past 40 years of hurricane tracking. On average, 11 named storms form each year, with six becoming hurricanes, two of them major.
Federal, state and local officials on hand at the National Hurricane Center to unveil this year's forecast yesterday urged the millions living in the most hurricane-prone areas to be prepared for the worst.
"Remember, it only takes one hurricane in your neighborhood to have a bad hurricane season," Lautenbacher said.
The North Atlantic is in the midst of a "multidecadal signal," a climate pattern favorable to hurricane formation and likely to last 10 or 20 more years, said Max Mayfield, hurricane center chief and the now-familiar face of the storm season.
That climate pattern involves a confluence of conditions in the ocean and atmosphere, with warmer sea surface temperatures fueling storms while weaker-than-usual wind shear allows them to gather force rather than get broken up as they travel westward, said Gerry Bell, hurricane outlook lead meteorologist.
Scientists are at odds over whether global warming has been a key factor in the rising frequency and severity of hurricanes.
Kerry Emanuel, an MIT professor and author of a Nature magazine analysis last year that linked warming waters with storm intensity, sees "a rather spectacular correlation between sea surface temperatures and aggregate hurricane occurrence."
But Stanley B. Goldenberg, a NOAA research meteorologist who helped compose this year's forecast, contends that the modest rise in water temperature over the past few decades doesn't explain the doubling of Category Four and Five storms since 1970.
After last year's disasters, federal funding for hurricane forecasting and research has skyrocketed. A $300 million budget for the tropical storm work is before President Bush for his signature - $109 million more than allocated last year, Lautenbacher said.
NOAA has also acquired a link with Europe's main weather satellite to get images from the far eastern Atlantic, where the storms tend to form. A new satellite downlink center in Washington to capture and analyze photos has been established, a new geostationary satellite has been deployed and four more forecasters have been hired at the hurricane center, a sturdy concrete bastion 20 miles inland.
With visions of the chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina still in their heads, officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency have stocked up on food and water and pre-positioned those supplies in the most vulnerable areas to get help to the needy faster, said David Paulison, acting director of the agency scorned by Congress as well as storm victims for a weak response after Katrina.
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.