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6.30.2005

Hurricane danger rising

Posted at Signs of the Times

WASHINGTON - Hurricane activity has increased and is likely to remain high for a decade or more, the head of the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday.

From the 1970s to the mid-1990s the number of hurricanes was low, Max Mayfield told the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee, but now frequency is increasing "and this period of heightened activity could last another 10 to 20 years."

Memories are still fresh of the four hurricanes that battered Florida last year. Forecasters predict 13 named storms, including seven hurricanes, could possibly threaten the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts this year.

Indeed, Tropical Depression Bret is currently producing heavy rains in Mexico.

Mayfield said the cyclic increase in tropical storms is made more dangerous because of the growth in coastal populations in recent years. An estimated 85 percent of coastal residents have never experienced a major hurricane, he said.

Mayfield said that even though forecasts and warnings have improved lately, being safe from such storms also requires personal responsibility.

"It really doesn't matter if you make a perfect forecast — if you don't get people to listen to you it's all for nothing," he said.

People in coastal areas need to have a plan and need to know where the nearest shelter is and what the evacuation plans are for their area, he said.

Asbury H. Sallenger of the U.S. Geological Survey added that the lack of experience with storms in recent years has resulted in construction of buildings that may not be able to stand up to them.

He pointed out the collapse of a five-story building in Orange Beach, Ala., when it was undermined by Hurricane Ivan.

Of special concern are the Florida Keys and New Orleans, where many people live in low-lying or below-sea-level areas that cannot be easily evacuated, Mayfield said.

"You need to make friends in high places. The problem is, neither of these areas have high places," he said.

Asked about the possibility of vertical evacuation in high-rise buildings in New Orleans, Mayfield said it is a refuge of last resort if people can't be evacuated.

After a major storm the power will be out, the water will be out and emergency personnel won't be able to care for thousands of people stuck in high rises, he said.

Overall, hurricanes claim 20 lives and cause $5.1 billion in damage in the average year. Those figures can jump many times in the event of a major storm like Andrew or Hugo.

Dennis McCarthy, director of the office of climate, water and weather services, told the committee that in a typical year there are 1,300 tornadoes in the United States, killing 58 people and causing $1.1 billion in damage. Floods account for $5.2 billion in damage and 80 deaths, he said, while lightning adds 53 fatalities annually
.

A recent study indicated that modern Doppler radar has sharply reduced the tornado death toll. McCarthy said the Weather Service is currently investigating radar improvements that could make forecasts even better.