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Hurricane Season Followed Its Forecast

Above-average number, but only one storm caused damage in U.S.

THURSDAY, Nov. 29, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The National Hurricane Center's crystal ball was right on the money: 2001 proved to be an above-average year for hurricanes.

Nine Atlantic storms became hurricanes during the 2001 season, which officially ends tomorrow, the center reports. Four of those hurricanes were considered major -- category 3 or higher, with winds of at least 111 miles per hour and storm surges of at least five feet. Another six depressions qualified as tropical storms.

Olga, the ninth storm, sneaked in at the last moment, becoming a hurricane on Nov. 26. Olga has been downgraded to tropical storm status, but may still strike the Bahamas and make big waves along the eastern United States.

"We're about 33 percent ahead of normal," says Frank Lepore, public affairs officer for the center, which is located in Miami. Typically, there are nine or 10 named storms every year. "We give them names when winds reach 39 miles per hour," Lepore says. "Of those nine to 10, six would become hurricanes in any given year. This year, nine tropical storms formed hurricanes."

This year's crop of storms fulfilled the government predictions that were first announced in May and then updated in August. To everyone's relief, none of the hurricanes made landfall in the United States, for the second year in a row, Lepore says.

But he adds, this is also the fourth above-average year in a row for storms in all categories: number of named storms, number of hurricanes, and number of category 3 or higher hurricanes.

The season's worst storm over U.S. soil was its first, Allison, which caused destruction in early June despite never reaching hurricane status. Allison "moved over the upper Texas coast, stalled over eastern Texas, produced up to 30 inches of rain in some areas in the Houston metropolitan region, caused $5 billion in damage and 41 deaths," Lepore says.

Hurricane Michelle, which formed in the Gulf of Honduras at the end of October, killed 13 people and left at least 26 missing. The storm forced 115,000 people from their homes in Jamaica, Nicaragua and Honduras before pounding Cuba with 135 mph winds on Nov. 4.

By comparison, the strongest hurricane of the century, according to the center's records, was Mitch in 1998, "which swung into Honduras and Nicaragua and killed 11,000 people," Lepore says. And the most expensive hurricane was Andrew, which hit south Florida in August 1992 and caused $30 billion in damage, he adds.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. Hurricanes need a pre-existing weather disturbance, warm tropical oceans, moisture, and relatively light winds in the upper atmosphere to form. If the right weather conditions combine for a long enough period of time, they produce the violent winds, incredible waves, torrential rains and floods that are associated with the feared weather system.

And there may be no letup in sight for the future.

Expect another 10 to 40 years of increased activity, predicts Stanley Goldenberg, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Hurricane Research Division in Miami.

"The real news is that this season is a further confirmation that the Atlantic has entered an era of increased hurricane activity that started in 1995. And it's the Caribbean that bears the brunt of this activity, and as everyone knows, they've been clobbered since 1995 with a little over two dozen killer storms."

Blame those water temperature patterns called El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific as well as slightly warmer temperatures in the Northern Atlantic for the increase, Goldenberg adds. "When you have the North Atlantic slightly warmer, you tend to have more hurricanes," he says.

What To Do

For more on hurricanes, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And if you're interested in what NOAA is predicting for this coming winter, check this out.

SOURCES: Interviews with Frank Lepore, public affairs officer, National Hurricane Center, Miami; Stanley Goldenberg, meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division, Miami
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