MIAMI -- Disaster planners at the National Hurricane Center warned in their annual forecast yesterday that ``a very active hurricane season is looming" and outlined a beefed-up system for tracking storms and helping people in their paths.
After last year's record-shattering storm spree, a new tracking center has been put in service, another weather satellite has been launched, more forecasters have been hired, and the volume of ready emergency relief supplies has been 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 predict that 13 to 16 named storms will form over the North Atlantic over 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 upwards of 111 miles per hour.
``The ultimate question is whether storms will make landfall. But that can't be predicted this far in advance," said retired Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., NOAA administrator, adding it was ``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 US Southeast, devastating New Orleans and vast swaths along the Gulf of Mexico and Florida's Atlantic coastline.
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 urged the millions living in hurricane-prone areas to be prepared.
``Remember, it only takes one hurricane in your neighborhood to have a bad hurricane season," said Lautenbacher.
The North Atlantic is in the midst of a ``multi-decadal signal," a climate pattern favorable to hurricane formation and which is likely to last another 10 or 20 years, said Max Mayfield, hurricane center chief.
That climate pattern involves a confluence of conditions in the ocean and atmosphere, with warmer sea surface temperatures fueling storms and weaker than usual wind shear allowing them to gather force rather than get broken up as they travel westward, said Gerry Bell, hurricane outlook lead meteorologist.
Following last year's disasters, federal funding for hurricane forecasting and research has skyrocketed.
A $300 million budget for the tropical storm work awaits President Bush's 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 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.