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Peak of hurricane season looming

Worst to come, forecasters predict

MIAMI -- Nearly eight weeks have passed since the last tropical storm in the Atlantic-Caribbean region faded away, but banish any notion that the 2007 hurricane season has been unusually slow and beware the coming months, specialists say.

The peak of the six-month season is just around the corner and forecasters are still predicting a busy one.

"There's absolutely nothing out of the ordinary," Gerry Bell, a hurricane forecaster for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said of the Atlantic season's first two months. "It's not slow. It's not fast."

On average, June and July produce zero to two named storms or hurricanes. So far this year there have been two. Andrea formed in early May, Barry on June 1.

There's plenty of evidence the first two months are meaningless as an indicator for the rest of the season.

In 2004, the first storm didn't form until Aug. 1. It ultimately became Hurricane Alex and kicked off one of the worst Atlantic seasons in decades. By mid-August that year, there had been five storms.

The entire 2004 season saw 15 storms, including nine hurricanes. Four of them, Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne, hit Florida. Each caused more than $6 billion damage and all four rank among the top 10 costliest storms in US history.

In 1998, the first storm didn't form until July 29. That season produced 10 hurricanes, including 155-miles-per-hour Georges, which battered Key West, and 180-miles-per-hour Mitch, which killed more than 9,000 people in Central America.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew, the first storm of the season, didn't form until Aug. 17. It devastated southern Florida to the tune of $25 billion and until Katrina in 2005 was the costliest hurricane in US history. Historically, the Atlantic hurricane season peaks on Sept. 10 and the period from Aug. 20 until Oct. 14 produces the greatest number of storms.

From 1851 to 2006, September was the top storm-producing month, with 459, followed by August with 344, and October with 280, according to NOAA records.

Forecasters have predicted 2007 will see an above-average number of storms. The averages for the past 40 years are 10.9 storms, 6.1 hurricanes, and 2.3 intense hurricanes with winds above 110 miles per hour.

A Colorado State University team led by forecasting pioneer Bill Gray has predicted 17 Atlantic storms, with nine becoming hurricanes and five reaching intense strength.

NOAA's forecast calls for a range of 13 to 17 storms, seven to 10 hurricanes, and three to five intense hurricanes. London-based Tropical Storm Risk predicts 14.7 storms, 7.9 hurricanes, and 3.5 intense hurricanes.

Private forecaster WSI Corp. on Tuesday lowered its forecast to 14 storms from 15 and to six hurricanes from eight.

Others may do likewise because sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic have cooled 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit after running well above normal for the last few years.

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