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Hurricane alleys get big break

By Donna Leinwand and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

When a hurricane hits South Florida, the employees at Beach Ace Hardware, two blocks from the ocean in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, work until the sheriff's department warns it is shutting the bridge that connects the beachfront town to the mainland.

"Literally, within hours of the storm, that's when we close the store," general manager Ed Huss says. "Until then, we're helping people get ready."

This year, Huss had plenty of hurricane supplies, but few takers.

"Nobody thinks about a storm unless it's here," says Huss, who has lived in Florida for 35 years. "I don't even worry about it until we see something coming. It's just another part of life in Florida."

Residents of the country's hurricane hot zone are experiencing their biggest break from serious storms in more than two decades as the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season winds down.

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Two hurricanes have formed since the season began June 1, the fewest since 1982, National Hurricane Center records show. Eight tropical storms grew strong enough to get names, the lowest number of such storms since 1997.

No hurricanes and just one of this year's tropical storms, Claudette, came ashore in the USA. Claudette formed suddenly in the Gulf of Mexico and moved through the Florida Panhandle Aug. 16 and 17.

"It's not over yet. Do not let your guard down," says Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "Do not start raiding your hurricane supplies."

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30, but peaks from late August until mid-October. A tropical storm is an organized system of strong thunderstorms and wind 39 mph to 73 mph. To be a hurricane, winds must exceed 73 mph.

Meteorologists are watching one disturbance off the Central American coast and another near the Bahamas. Both have less than a 30% chance of becoming tropical storms.

"It's been pretty quiet," says Phil Klotzbach, a research atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University. "The primary thing to thank is the El Niño."

Storms have fiscal impact

The "El Niño" climate phenomenon — warmer-than-normal water in the tropical Pacific Ocean — produces a weather pattern that creates wind shear over the Atlantic Ocean, Klotzbach says.

The wind shear — strong winds blowing from different directions at varying heights — can tear apart the 60 to 70 developing tropical waves that come off the African coast in an average year and can strengthen into hurricanes, Feltgen says. In an average year, the Atlantic has 10 tropical storms and six hurricanes, he says.

This year, Hurricane Bill whipped by Bermuda on Aug. 22 before moving north off the Atlantic coast. Hurricane Fred died Sept. 12 over the Atlantic Ocean.

Last year, eight hurricanes formed and three struck the USA. Hurricane Ike, which drowned Galveston, Texas, caused more than $24 billion in damage in the USA.

In 2005, one of the most active seasons in recent years, the National Hurricane Center exhausted the alphabet as it named 28 tropical storms.

That year, on Oct. 24, Wilma hit South Florida, and Beach Ace Hardware lost power for 10 days. The store reopened on generator power, Huss says. A caterer down the street cooked meals for his employees, who filled orders by flashlight in the un-air-conditioned store, he says. Customers clamored for generators, oil, propane, batteries and lanterns, he says.

Huss says he's grateful for the break this year.

"Even though there's a little boost for us during a hurricane, it's so detrimental to the economy as a whole in South Florida, it's just not what we need," Huss says.

Still had other disasters

Insurers will use the respite to rebuild their reserves after paying out more than $90 billion in hurricane claims over the past decade, says Marguerite Tortorello, spokeswoman for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade association.

Consumers might see a slight drop in rates or smaller rate increases than in past years, says Don Griffin, a vice president of the association.

Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Pacific storms, including a tsunami that hit American Samoa, wildfires, flooding and tornadoes kept FEMA's disaster experts busy even as the hurricanes gave them a breather.

He urged Americans to use their downtime to devise family plans that could take them through any emergency. In Florida, he says, hurricanes get all the attention, but it was a tornado that killed 21 people in Lake County in Central Florida on Feb. 2, 2007.

People should plan how they will contact family members, decide where to meet if they are separated, review their insurance and ensure they have emergency supplies of food, water, medication, batteries and other essentials on hand, he says.

"The things you do to get prepared for a big disaster are the things that would save lives in another situation — a house fire, a tornado, a flood," Fugate says. "What happens to you and your family? Are you ready?"

Fewer storms

The 2009 Atlantic hurricane season is on track to be the quietest since 1982:

Year Tropical Storms Hurricanes Total

1980 11 9 20

1981 12 7 19

1982 6 2 8

1983 4 3 7

1984 13 5 18

1985 11 7 18

1986 6 4 10

1987 7 3 10

1988 12 5 17

1989 11 7 18

1990 14 8 22

1991 8 4 12

1992 7 4 11

1993 8 4 12

1994 7 3 10

1995 19 11 31

1996 13 9 22

1997 8 3 11

1998 14 10 24

1999 12 8 20

2000 15 8 23

2001 15 9 24

2002 12 4 16

2003 16 7 23

2004 15 9 24

2005 28 15 43

2006 10 5 15

2007 15 6 21

2008 16 8 24

2009 8 2 10

Sources:NOAA, National Hurricane Center; Colorado State University

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