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Forecasting the 2006 Hurricane Season

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Hurricane season starts tomorrow. The National Hurricane Center says the Gulf Coast region should gear up for yet another very active hurricane season. U.S. disaster preparedness officials say they're ready, but residents of storm battered coastal areas are anxious after experiencing the destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year.

Joining me now to discuss the ongoing recovery from last year's hurricanes and what's ahead for this year are Dom Hammack, staff writer of the Biloxi Sun-Herald and William Gray, leader of the Colorado State University Hurricane Forecast Team.

Gentlemen, welcome.

Mr. DOM HAMMACK (Staff Writer, Biloxi Sun-Herald): Thank you.

Dr. WILLIAM GRAY (Leader, Colorado State University Hurricane Forecast Team): Glad to join you.

GORDON: Mr. Gray, let me start with you. So many people - So many people trying to figure out whether or not we're going to see another year like last year as forecasters try to prognosticate. What are we looking for this year?

Dr. GRAY: Well, we're looking for a pretty active season. Not as active as last year, but we've had this spate of very active seasons since 1995, and we think this will be another active season; but that doesn't necessarily mean we'll have the damage we've had the last couple years.

GORDON: Mr. Gray, so many people concerned about the levees and whether these areas are ready. The Army Corps of Engineers suggests that they're moving along as quickly as possible. But as forecasters will do, as you try to pinpoint how these storms go, are you comfortable with what you've been hearing from the Army Corps of Engineers and others, in relation to being ready for this season?

Dr. GRAY: Well, I haven't - I haven't been following that topic so much that I could talk very intelligently about it. I do know that, you know, had the New Orleans levees not been breached last year that the overall damage from Katrina probably would have been only half as much as it was.

I can't talk to that question, but the probability of a storm coming into New Orleans again this year is very low. See, anywhere along the coast, in any one year, the probability of being hit is extremely low.

GORDON: Dom Hammack, let me turn my attention to you. I am sure residents are glad to hear that and hope Mr. Gray is correct. Talk to me about what you have seen and heard when talking to residents.

Mr. HAMMACK: Well, I think, you know, this is one year where the folks at the Hurricane Center and all the emergency management agencies aren't going to have a lot of trouble getting people to evacuate. This is certainly a year where people are on edge. I don't think anybody's looking forward to tomorrow and the start of hurricane season, even though we know there's not going to be a storm, you know, tomorrow. It's just kind of the specter of it that's hanging over us.

And I think, intellectually, most people realize that the odds of getting hit by a storm like Dr. Gray said are very small each year; but when you've clobbered by what we've gotten clobbered by here, nine months ago or so, it's a daunting - it's just kind of a feeling of dread, really, that's around here. And, like I said, I think anytime you get storms that kind of touch into the Gulf, it's going to - there's going to be a lot of people whose cars are pointed north at that point.

GORDON: Yeah, Mr. Hammack, what about the psychological aspect of all that still has to be done a year later when we talk about clean up, when we talk about people not even back in their homes or anything that remotely resembles a home environment for them?

Mr. HAMMACK: Well, I mean, you know, you've got, I think we're down - we've got 90 percent or more of the debris removed in everyplace along the Mississippi coast; which is good but it's still, there's places over in Hancock county around Bay St. Louis and Waveland and all that still have, you know, 10 percent of the debris left to be removed from a storm that happened nine months ago.

There's a lot of people who are - something like 38,000 families in Mississippi who are living in FEMA trailers. And that's nothing to be excited about, and certainly not with storm season coming up. I think everybody realizes how vulnerable they can be to storms. They're really like living in oversized sardine cans. They're not very comfortable. They're meant for kind of weekend getaways, not for long-term living. And there's anxiousness with that.

There's people who are putting off rebuilding just because they're kind of nervous in trying to figure out what's going to go on with the future storms, with the FEMA flood elevations, which are such a hot topic around here. And things like that.

So, I mean, there's really, you know - you get kind of battered by it a lot of times if you've lost your house. You've got so many decisions to make and it all kind of makes for an uneasy, you know, psychological makeup.

GORDON: Mr. Gray, let me go back to you and talk to you about storm patterns and whether or not we see the kind of season we saw last year. There are those who are concerned that over the years, whether it be this year, next year, or the following, we're starting to see patterns, conditions of change, atmospheric conditions of change that will certainly bring stronger storms; is that something that you have seen throughout?

Dr. GRAY: Yeah, I can speak to that, yes. We - in the Atlantic, we have this multi-decadal pattern where you have, oh, 20-30 years or so of more major storms. It mainly occurs with the most intense, not the weaker storms. And like the 1940s, '50s, early '60s was this active period.

And then we went through from the late '60s to the middle '90s through this period where we had a lot fewer major storms and many fewer land falling storms.

Then the pattern changed again in 1995; in the last 11 years, all but two have been very active. Now, we were very lucky in the early phases of this active period. From 1995 through 2003, we had 32 Atlantic basin major storms and only three hit the U.S.

Now, the long-term average is about one in three, or one in three-and-a-half. So we were extremely lucky.

Now, we've been saying that, for a number of years that we're going to start to see hurricane damage like we've never previously seen it. Not that we will necessarily get more land falling storms than we did in the '40s through the early '60s, but there's been such a build up of people and property values along the southeast coast that if we return to anything similar to that earlier pattern, we're going to see a lot of hurricane spawned damage.

GORDON: Dom Hammack, what are you finding - as you are reporting your stories and going out and talking to people - seems to be the biggest concern? If they're not concerned about the big storm coming this year, what are they most concerned about?

Mr. HAMMACK: Well, I think, you know, the biggest concern around here tends to be things in the rebuilding process. We've got a lot of issues with that and everything from the FEMA flood elevations, which I mentioned which would set the baselines for the National Flood Insurance Program and things like that. And people are really concerned that they're going to have to build up far too high, to make it too expensive. Insurance is going to be a massive problem around these parts. Like Dr. Gray mentioned, there's been such a build up, you know, in the past decades - and especially around here, since the introduction of gambling here in the early 90s - that, you know, the insurance companies have a lot to be concerned about. And it's going to be significantly more expensive to get insurance.

And so those are kind of the issues that we're looking at. We've got a lot of, kind of, big development going on, but there's a lot of concern about where is affordable housing going to be? Where are all the people who work in the service industry - at casinos and restaurants and retail - where are they going to live at? Because land prices have really, kind of, soared through the roof. So we're - you know, there are a lot of people that are trying to help the area kind of make, you know, smart - excuse me - smart development decisions. But it's one of those things where, you know, in a lot of cases, the almighty dollar wins out. And we're kind of pointed towards bigger and better and that kind of thing.

GORDON: What of the idea of resiliency? We always talk about people coming through these kinds of tragedies, these catastrophes, and being resilient and moving on. Yet, there is a reality that says that, to some degree, just being human in a situation like that, there are times that you're crestfallen. When you see the hurricane season upon us, imminent, are you finding that people are a bit more pessimistic than optimistic, Don?

Mr. HAMMACK: Well, you know - and I think I've - you know, I don't want to paint a picture that's kind of different from around here. I think, you know, one of the things that's so frustrating about all these issues is that so many people do want to stay here and do want to be here. And we know that hurricanes are a part of our lives around here. I mean, they always have been. And everybody who's originally from here kind of grows up with it and knows that that's kind of the way of life.

We certainly never expected anything like Katrina - something of that magnitude. But, you know, we had Camille here before, and the area rebuilt. And I think there is a determination to come back. There's a lot of great things about the area, and I think there is a determination. And that was evident from the early days after the storm, and it's still there now. There's frustration, to be sure; and there will be frustration around here for many years while people try and get rebuilt. But I don't think we've seen any kind of massive hang your head and feel sorry for me kind of thing. Everybody's kind of trying to point towards the future and get their lives back on track.

GORDON: Well, certainly, we hope that Dr. Gray's predictions are true and that we don't see the kind of massive destruction and landfall power from a hurricane that we saw last year. Don Hammack is a Staff Writer at the Biloxi Sun-Herald in southern Mississippi. And William Gray has led the Colorado State University Hurricane Forecast Team for the last 22 years. Gentlemen, I thank you both. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. HAMMACK: Thank you.

Dr. GRAY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, another ethics scandal may be brewing in Washington. And no diploma? No problem. Some colleges are now accepting students without high school degrees. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.