WASHINGTON -- The nation's top weather officials marked the end of hurricane season Tuesday with a warning that tropical storm regions seem to be heading into an era of more and bigger storms.
"We have turned the corner ... out of a period of less hurricane activity into a time of more hurricanes," said Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Hurricane Center.
Tropical weather seems to operate in cycles of 20 to 30 years, Jarrell said, and the country currently is just a few years into a more active storm period.
At the same time, the ability to forecast the number of storms and their movement has improved greatly, said National Weather Service Director John J. Kelly Jr.
Last spring the agency issued its first ever preseason forecast, predicting more tropical storms and hurricanes than usual. The call was "right on," on the words of D. James Baker, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Service's parent agency.
Indeed, the season had 12 tropical storms, eight of which became hurricanes. An average year has 10 storms, six becoming hurricanes.
Kelly noted that as in most recent years, most of this year's hurricane deaths resulted from inland flooding rather than coastal winds or storm surges.
The agency needs to teach the public to view hurricanes not as one-spot events but as a large area of wind and rain, he said. Also, he said, more emphasis should be put on discouraging people from trying to drive through high water.
Jarrell added that while hurricane direction forecasts are better, the agency still has problems predicting sudden changes in a storm's power. When storms suddenly increase in force, he said, "These can be really dangerous situations."
"There is no bigger natural disaster than a hurricane," Baker said. He noted that the deadliest U.S. event was a 1900 hurricane at Galveston, Texas, that killed at least 8,000 people, probably many more.
"The forecast only tells you what is going to happen," Kelly said. "The next step is what can you do about it."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a program called Project Impact to help individuals and communities prepare for storms and make homes storm-resistant.
Kelly said the Weather Service also is developing a program called Storm Ready to help communities prepare for storms.
All this season's major hurricanes -- Bret, Cindy, Floyd, Gert and Lenny -- were category 4, characterized by top sustained winds of 131 mph to 155 mph.
"We've never had five category 4s all in one year before," said Max Mayfield, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center. "We've had 20 major hurricanes over the last five years, and that's a record."
Hurricane Floyd was the most destructive in the United States in 1999, destroying or damaging 12,000 homes. It caused more than $6 billion in damage to North Carolina alone and was blamed for at least 56 deaths.
In addition to the Weather Service hurricane forecast, Colorado State University professor William Gray, renowned for accurate hurricane season forecasts, had a good year, predicting 14 named storms and nine hurricanes.
Gray has said increased hurricane activity seems to run in 25- to 50-year cycles. Things were slow from the 1970s until 1995, so the early decades of the 21st century could be busy ones.
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