WASHINGTON -- As many as 11 tropical storms - including five to seven hurricanes - could threaten the Atlantic and Gulf coasts this year, government forecasters said Monday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted what it called a normal hurricane season this year, but it warned that doesn't mean the danger is less.
"Don't focus on the numbers, you need to be prepared," Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said in an appearance on The Early Show on CBS.
"Have a plan, don't wait for the hurricane to come knocking on your door," he said.
"Although we expect an average level of activity this season, that is no cause to become complacent," said acting NOAA Administrator Scott Gudes. "Residents in hurricane-prone areas can't afford to let their guard down. Just one storm can dramatically change your life."
A normal Atlantic hurricane season typically brings eight to 11 tropical storms, of which five to seven reach hurricane strength, the forecasters said. Such a season can include two or three major storms.
Hurricane season for the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and Caribbean lasts from June 1 to Nov. 30.
A leading independent forecaster, William M. Gray of Colorado State University, has predicted 10 tropical storms, of which six will be hurricanes, two of them intense.
The "normal" forecast is based on the absence of such influences as the El Nino and La Nina phenomena, in which unusual warming or cooling of the tropical Pacific can affect the weather worldwide, officials said.
Without those influences, the key climatic factors guiding this year's expected activity are long-term patterns of tropical rainfall, air pressure and temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, said Jack Kelly, director of NOAA's National Weather Service.
"Forecasters will monitor these climate patterns, especially leading up to the August - October peak period of the season," Kelly said.
Mayfield stressed that hurricane-spawned disasters occur even in years with normal or below-normal levels of activity.
"If you go back and look in the history books you'll find that the deadliest hurricane the United States ever had, the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900; the costliest hurricane ... Hurricane Andrew in '92, and the most intense hurricane, the Labor Day Hurricane in the Florida Keys in 1935, all those hurricanes occurred in years of below average numbers," Mayfield said.
"We don't want people to be caught off guard by a land-falling storm because the hurricane outlook calls for normal storm activity," Mayfield said.
The rapidly increasing population along the East and Gulf coasts means many more people live in harm's way when tropical storms threaten, and the vast majority have never experienced such a storm.
"We do have a big challenge to convince the public of the dangers of hurricanes," Kelly told a recent conference on hurricane preparedness.
"We can change the impact of disasters. We, as a nation, can reduce the loss of life ... by taking effective action now," said Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It is the job of government, the private sector and all Americans to learn about the threats to their lives and homes and be prepared to take action if needed, he said.
Last year, there were 14 tropical storms, including eight hurricanes, but most stayed well offshore.
Despite improvements in recent years, predicting three days ahead where a hurricane will strike the coast is still subject to error by as much as 200 miles. That's half the error of 20 years ago, but it still poses serious problems for officials making decisions about evacuation.
That forecast improvement has led to one major change over recent decades.
No longer is storm surge slamming ashore the major killer. People are warned and, for the most part, evacuate from the area.
The leading hurricane killer now is inland flooding, in places where the storm's heavy rains raise water levels.
From 1970 to 1999, more than 600 Americans were killed in hurricanes and tropical storms. A study published by the American Meteorological Society found that 82 percent of those deaths were drownings and more than half were in inland counties and parishes. Storm surge accounted for only six fatalities.
That study, by hurricane forecaster Edward N. Rappaport, also found that early-season storms were often among the deadliest. He attributed that to weak steering winds early in the summer, causing the storms to move slowly, thus prolonging their potential to cause flooding.
Source: National Hurricane Center.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov
National Weather Service: http://www.nws.noaa.gov
Federal Emergency Management Agency: http://www.fema.gov
American Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/