November 29, 2007
The 2007 hurricane season: Hot or not?

On the one hand, as the 2007 hurricane season officially ends, it wasn't that bad.

Despite alarming predictions, the U.S. came through a second straight hurricane season virtually unscathed, raising fears among emergency planners that they will be fighting public apathy and overconfidence when they warn people to prepare for next year.

Friday marks the official close of the Atlantic season, so unless a storm forms in the next few days, only one hurricane -- and a minor one at that -- will have hit the U.S. during the June-to-November period. Mexico and Central America, however, were struck by a record two top-scale Category 5 storms.

The preliminary total for the season: 14 named storms, six of them hurricanes, two of them major.

That was less activity than the government predicted before the season started, and stands in stark contrast to 2004 and 2005, when the U.S. was hit by one devastating storm after another, including Hurricane Katrina.


The season's 14 named storms were on the low end of the 13 to 17 government scientists predicted. The six hurricanes didn't reach the seven to 10 forecast. The two major hurricanes were also below the three to five predicted.

Colorado State University weather researcher William Gray was further off the mark. Before the start of the season, he forecast 17 named storms, including nine hurricanes, five of them major, with a strong chance that a major hurricane would hit the U.S. coast.

Humberto, a Category 1 storm that hit Texas and Louisiana in September, was the first hurricane to strike the U.S. in two years. It was blamed for one death and $30 million in damage.

Gerry Bell, a hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the season was relatively quiet largely because La Nina, a cooling of the water in the Pacific that normally boosts the formation of hurricanes, had weaker-than-expected effects.

The government's 2006 preseason forecast proved overly pessimistic as well. Scientists predicted 13 to 16 named storms, eight to 10 of them hurricanes, with four to six of them major. Instead, there were nine named storms and five hurricanes, two of them major.

Bell said that this marks the second "near normal" season in a row. However, storm activity tends to go in cycles, and he said the Atlantic is still believed to be in a more active hurricane period that began in 1995.

On the other hand, if you were outside the US, this hurricane season was very bad indeed.

For a second year in a row, the United States has escaped a severe hurricane hit, pushing memories of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans another notch into the past.

But for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, the 2007 hurricane season ending on Friday has hardly been benign.

"No, not at all. The consequences for the poor have been very high," said Judy Dacruz, a representative in Haiti of the International Organization for Migration.

The 14 tropical storms that formed in the Atlantic this season killed more than 200 people in Martinique, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua and Mexico and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to often impoverished and vulnerable communities throughout the region.


In the Mexican town of Mahahual on the Yucatan Peninsula, Hurricane Dean destroyed a cruise ship pier which had been a key source of income. "Windows, doors, electrical systems -- except for the basic structure of the hotel, everything was destroyed by Dean," said Rodolfo Romero, owner of the boutique Hotel Arenas.

Dean, which became a maximum-strength Category 5 hurricane, killed at least 27 people as it roared through the Caribbean in August and struck the peninsula.

Hurricane Felix in September also became a Category 5 storm on the five-step scale of hurricane intensity, killing 102 and leaving another 133 missing in Nicaragua, according to the Pan-American Health Organization.

Dean and Felix were the first two Atlantic hurricanes since records began in 1851 to make landfall in the same season as Category 5 storms.

The last storm of the season, Noel, soaked the Dominican Republic and Haiti, killing more than 150 people as rivers broke their banks and surged through towns.

"It's been very busy, especially in Central America but also in the Caribbean," said Tim Callaghan, a senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Latin America and the Caribbean. "We have provided disaster assistance to Dominica, Belize, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico."

That first story talks about how after two quiet years in the US, folks here are likely to get complacent and less willing to pay attention to warnings and evacuation notices. I can't speak for anyone else, but I sure as hell haven't forgotten our 20-hour odyssey to Dallas from 2005, and I haven't thought it would get any easier now that we have two kids to think about. We were on full alert for Hurricane Dean, and would have hauled ass out of here at what would probably have been a fairly low objective risk level. I don't plan on taking this any less seriously any time soon.

Here's a summary and review (PDF) of the year's activity from William Gray and Phil Klotzbach, the two Colorado State dudes who make the predictions that get the press. Here's their press release if you want the condensed version. And here's a great quote to wrap it all up:

"Meteorologists are known to be absolutely brilliant at after-the-fact explanation of weather phenomena ... but please don't press us too hard on future events!!"

You can freely substitute "political scientists" and "elections" (or, if you prefer, "smartass political bloggers" and "elections") in that statement and it wouldn't be any less true.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 29, 2007 to Hurricane Katrina