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Hurricane teams say all it takes is one

ORLANDO — Forecasts for the 2008 hurricane season will come out within days, and the nation's top emergency planners can already tell you what these predictions mean to you.

"Nothing," said Craig Fugate, director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management.

"No, I don't," said National Hurricane Center director Bill Read, when asked if he believed the annual predictions offer any real use to the general public.

R. David Paulison said he's always interested in the number of hurricanes and tropical storms that experts predict, but he added that the numbers don't change what he does, either as a Miami native or as the administrator of FEMA.

"As far as we're concerned, we have to be ready if it's one or if it's 10," Paulison said.

At the National Hurricane Conference this week, emergency planners from across the nation are preparing for the next storm season, which begins June 1. They are grappling with details such as whether to provide ice to hurricane victims and broader issues such as how to reduce the massive number of people who would need to evacuate an urban coast like Pinellas County's.

For example Paulison, a former Miami-Dade fire chief, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has decided delivering ice to people after hurricanes doesn't make much sense. He said it's more important to get them food and water. This policy was in place last year but didn't get much notice because of the low number of storms making landfall.

Fugate, trying to think of long-term solutions, discussed the possibility of creating incentives to encourage developers to build hurricane-resistant shelters in high-rise buildings such as condominium towers. That way, people could safely ride out a storm in their condos, instead of evacuating with thousands of other Tampa Bay area residents in what could become a traffic nightmare. "We're not going to be able to evacuate everybody out of St. Pete," he said.

But for many at the conference, and for most people in the Tampa Bay area, it all more or less boils down to two questions: Will we get hit by a hurricane this year, and are we ready?

That may explain the popularity of the forecasts. Read said in an interview he would love to "pull back the almost circus-like hype" on the storm forecasts, and focus instead on underlying factors, such as the weather patterns known as El Nino and La Nina.

Fugate said the forecasts are worthwhile scientific endeavors in themselves. Even though "the annual rite of the spring forecast means nothing to the individual," he readily confessed to using them himself as a way of motivating the public to get ready for the next storm.

The bottom line this year, he said, is the same as every year: "Let's get ready."

Philip J. Klotzbach of Colorado State University and his close colleague, famed hurricane researcher William Gray, strongly encourage everyone to prepare for hurricanes regardless of the predictions. When a bay area homeowner is deciding what to pack in her hurricane box, the seasonal forecasts "shouldn't have any bearing," Klotzbach said. "We've said that forever."

As he and others pointed out this week, 1992 was a light season for hurricanes generally speaking — which didn't make you feel any better if your house got smashed by Hurricane Andrew that year.

For the record, Klotzbach and Gray's spring forecast is due out next week, and it will follow one that already was released in December calling for a busier-than-normal year.

The team's forecasts over-estimated storm activity for the past two years, and Klotzbach said he had redesigned a complex statistical model in an effort to do better this time.

"When we bust, I get mad," he said. "It's not fun."

Hurricane teams say all it takes is one 04/02/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 11:22pm]
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