The last time a major hurricane hit the U.S., pounding beaches and towns with winds of more than 111 miles per hour, was the record storm year of 2005.
“We have never gone six” years without a major strike, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “That is a record I would like to establish, but that’s not up to me, but up to nature.”
In 2005, which saw 15 hurricanes and seven major storms of Category 3 or higher, Katrina struck near New Orleans, killing at least 1,836 people. Katrina and Rita caused $91 billion in damage, destroyed 115 energy platforms in the Gulf and shut down 95 percent of Gulf oil production and almost 30 percent of U.S. refining capacity, according to government reports.
As the 2011 season opens tomorrow, forecasts call for the Atlantic to be more active than in an average year, which produces 11 named storms. The Atlantic has a 65 percent chance of producing 12 to 18 storms, with six to 10 of them becoming hurricanes, according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.
The last hurricane to hit the U.S. was Ike, a Category 2 storm, in 2008. There hasn’t been a three-year period without a U.S. hurricane strike since the 1860s, according to Andover, Massachusetts-based Weather Services International, a software maker owned by the Weather Channel.
Planet’s Worst Storms
Hurricanes are the most powerful and destructive storms on the planet, inflicting $152.4 billion in insured losses in the U.S. from 1990 to 2009 and accounting for 45.2 percent of the country’s catastrophic losses in the same time period, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York.
This year, the industry may be under greater strain because of large losses inflicted by record-setting tornadoes that have killed more than 500 people and destroyed at least $3 billion to $6.5 billion of insured property, said Robert Hartwig, president and economist for the insurance institute.
Hurricanes, which are most active during the six-month season than runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, are a threat to Florida orange growers, who produce the second-largest crops behind Brazil, and Gulf of Mexico oil and gas platforms and refineries. The Gulf accounts for 31 percent of U.S. oil output and 43 percent of refining capacity.
Last year, while tying for the third-most active season on record, the U.S. was protected from major damage by a trough, or an elongated area of low pressure, that helped keep all the hurricanes and all except one tropical storm from striking the U.S., said Jim Rouiller, a senior energy meteorologist at Planalytics Inc. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.
Pulling Storms In
The trough is setting up this year across the Mississippi Valley, and if it stays there, it’s “going to act as a magnet to pull these storms into the southeastern U.S. or mid- Atlantic,” Rouiller said.
“We will be faced with a much higher threat of a land- falling hurricane,” Rouiller said.
The position of this year’s Bermuda High, a semi-permanent area of high pressure over the North Atlantic, may also drive storms closer to the U.S., said Paul Pastelok of AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.
Pastelok said forecasters at AccuWeather believe the high will position itself in such a way that more U.S. land strikes are possible.
Not all forecasters are willing to make that bet.
Predicting where storms will make landfall before they form is virtually impossible, said Feltgen. And Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground Inc., said the weather patterns that steer hurricanes can’t be predicted months in advance.
“There is no telling what the steering currents are going to do this year,” Masters said.
The one aspect that all forecasters agree on is that La Nina, the cooling of the Pacific Ocean, won’t be in play. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology declared the La Nina event over and said the Pacific has returned to neutral.
A storm gets a name when its winds reach 39 miles per hour (63 kilometers per hour) and becomes a hurricane when winds hit 74 mph. There are five hurricane categories as classified by the Saffir-Simpson scale, with damage increasing by a factor of four for each step up, according to the hurricane center.
While storm names are recycled every six years, this year will have names that weren’t on the list in 2005, said Feltgen. After that season, five names were retired, among them Katrina, “the most number of storms names we retired in one year,” Feltgen said.
Two names, Igor and Tomas, were retired by the World Meteorological Organization’s hurricane committee last year.
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