Note to Editors: The following comments by hurricane forecaster William Gray date from a mid-May interview and are based on figures from his April 7, 2000, forecast update. Gray and his team will issue their next seasonal update with current figures on June 7. The Colorado State team’s Web site is http://tropical.atmos.colostate.edu/forecasts/index.html and contains technical reports and news releases for the 2000 season and earlier. An actuality line containing many of the quotes in this release is available by calling (970) 491-1525.
Bearing down on the June 1 date that marks the official opening of the 2000 hurricane season, William Gray and his Colorado State University forecast team are sticking to their call for an above-average season with 11 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
The next forecast update, based on new data, will be issued June 7.
"I don’t expect we’ll change our forecast much (in June)," said Gray, professor of atmospheric science. "As of the middle of May, things look about as they did in early April or early December of last year when we issued the same forecast. "We may raise or lower it, but I think there’s a higher probability that we would raise the numbers."
That possibility stems from what Gray calls "climate signals" like Atlantic Ocean sea surface temperatures and barometric pressures that seem to favor an active season. Equatorial winds normally found at 55,000 feet could interfere with hurricane formation but have failed to descend enough to do so.
"The last two years, 1998 and 1999, we’ve had quite cold waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific," Gray said. "Normally when you have those La Nina cold-water conditions you have active seasons. This year, the cold water is still there as of the middle of May. It’s fading out a little bit, but we still think the water will remain cold and (will be) one of the factors, only one, that will lead to an above-average year for this season."
Gray’s team had a very successful year with the 1999 season, predicting 14 named storms (there were 12), nine hurricanes (there were eight) and four major hurricanes (there were five). He noted that a major change took place in 1995, in that the five years since have been the most-active five consecutive years of hurricane activity on record, with 65 named storms, 41 hurricanes and 20 major hurricanes. By contrast, there were only five major hurricanes for the period 1990-94.
Gray believes this signals a new, more-active era of major hurricane formation, likely to last for two or more decades.
He warns that population increases and property buildup along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but particularly in the southeast, puts many more homeowners at risk.
"A major storm coming in anywhere in the Houston area, the Gold Coast of southeast Florida or the Long Island-New York area, because of the high populations, will do catastrophic damage," he said. "It’s possible we could get a storm that could do $50 to $75 billion in damage."
And that leads to another concern: the belief by some people that emergency authorities are crying wolf when they call for an evacuation, as they did in Florida last year with Hurricane Floyd. Floyd, a category 4 when off the Florida coast, came ashore in South Carolina as a category 2, causing extensive damage mostly through flooding.
Because of limitations in predicting a storm’s track two or three days in advance, evacuations often are necessary even when, in hindsight, they seem unnecessary. Gray’s advice: Trust the local authorities.
"It’s much better to evacuate three or four times when you don’t have to than to wait and not evacuate when you do," he said. "The net inconvenience for people is worth it-it might save your life."