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South Spent Millions on a Hurricane Season That Wasn't

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006; A11

MIAMI -- Anticipation of the 2006 hurricane season turned countless families here and in a vast swath of the Southeast into survivalists.

Households stockpiled ready-to-eat meals. They scarfed up emergency radios, propane stoves, satellite phones, shutters, candles, canned goods. Hordes plunked down $500 and up for home generators.

The predictions of another scary storm season and the memory of last year's record-setting disasters inspired fear and a spending spree of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The main uncertainty in the outlook is not whether the season will be above normal, but how much above normal it will be," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters announced in May. That forecast called for eight to 10 hurricanes and noted that the year might be "hyperactive."

Now comes a humbling moment for prognosticators: Those predictions were wrong.

Although the season doesn't end officially until Nov. 30, the peak time has passed, and meteorologists concede that its totals will almost certainly fall far short of the dire predictions issued as the summer began. In fact, the year's storm totals probably will not even reach the averages of the past 10 years.

"I think everyone agreed it was going to be an active season, but we were all wrong," said Philip Klotzbach, co-author of well-known predictions issued by a Colorado State University team.

He began a recent presentation with a rueful quotation from 19th-century mathematician Francois Arago: "Never, no matter what may be the progress of science, will honest scientific men who have regard for their reputations venture to predict the weather."

"Anyone who makes forecasts about the weather gets picked on all the time," Klotzbach said. "There's an art to it."

The NOAA forecast at the beginning of the season called for eight to 10 hurricanes, but so far there have been five. It said there would be four to six "major" hurricanes -- that is, Category 3, 4, or 5 strength -- but so far there have been only two.

The forecast from the Colorado State team was in general agreement with NOAA's predictions. But it went further and offered that there was a 95 percent chance of a hurricane making landfall in the United States.

None did, however, making the year seem especially quiet in the portion of the country known as Hurricane Alley.

What has accounted for the mild season, according to forecasters, is the unexpected onset of El Niño, which stifled storm development, as it has in previous years. Also, the steering currents over the Atlantic tended to keep Atlantic storms from making landfall, curving them northward and back out to sea.

The relatively calm season stands in marked contrast to the nervousness it inspired at the outset, when concerns about the dangers of Atlantic hurricanes seemed to have reached a historic climax.

The 2005 season had been the busiest recorded, and some scientists had begun to regard heightened hurricane activity as a sign that Earth's climate is out of whack, a symptom of global warming.

Then, at the start of the season, forecasters issued the alarmingly specific predictions that more danger lay ahead. The seasonal forecasts are based on ocean temperatures and atmospheric conditions.

"If you think the 2006 hurricane season cannot be any worse than last year," National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said at a hurricane conference, "I'm here to tell you otherwise."

As a result, many who had once scoffed at hurricane warnings and parodied the batten-down-the-hatches urgency of television forecasters now allowed that this season, they were preparing to hunker down if necessary.

Foil-wrapped ready-to-eat meals flew off the shelves at sporting goods stores. So did gas stoves and solar showers and battery-operated fans.

Help Jet, a West Palm Beach company, offered $500 memberships to Floridians who wanted to guarantee a seat on a private flight out of harm's way in the event of an approaching hurricane. As last year's troublesome evacuations showed, leaving is difficult when everyone else is on the road, too.

"It was something we'd never seen before," said Julie Abreu, a buyer for Jet's Florida Outdoors, a Miami sporting goods store, where purchases of hurricane-related items doubled. "It was busy the whole year."

During a 12-day period in May, when the state of Florida allowed hurricane preparation items to be bought tax-free, an estimated $550 million worth were purchased, according to state figures. The total hurricane spending in the state was probably much higher, however, because those estimates did not include items such as plywood, which were not part of the tax-free program.

"In this period of increased tropical activity, it is vital for all Floridians to prepare," Gov. Jeb Bush (R) advised constituents. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) likewise initiated an eight-week hurricane awareness program.

Among those swept up in the meteorological tension was a neighborhood in Hollywood, Fla., where more than a dozen households banded together to negotiate a discount on large generators costing $15,000 to $20,000.

Some, like Victor DeBianchi, spent more than $50,000 getting ready. In addition to his home generator, he bought hurricane shutters and impact-resistant glass for his home.

"What better way to ensure that nothing would happen?" DeBianchi, a probate lawyer, asked wryly. "I really did think there would be something this year. But I'm glad I did it. It's peace of mind."

© ;2006 ;The Washington Post Company
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